Dem Sen. Cardin opposes Iran deal
© Greg Nash

Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinCongress should take the lead on reworking a successful Iran deal 'Fix' the Iran deal, but don't move the goalposts North Korea tensions ease ahead of Winter Olympics MORE (D-Md.) said on Friday that he will oppose the Iran nuclear deal, making him the third Senate Democrat to come out against the agreement.

"This is a close call, but after a lengthy review, I will vote to disapprove the deal," he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "The JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] legitimizes Iran's nuclear program. After 10 to 15 years, it would leave Iran with the option to produce enough enriched fuel for a nuclear weapon in a short time."

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The opposition of Cardin — the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — is a setback for the Obama administration as it tries to lock down 41 votes to block a resolution of disapproval on the deal from passing the Senate.

The president, with 38 senators backing the deal, is still three votes shy of blocking the resolution, and Cardin, widely considered one of the most influential Democrats on Iran, could impact the handful of Senate Democrats who are still on the fence.

The Maryland Democrat helped reach a deal earlier this year with Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenate campaign fundraising reports roll in Congress should take the lead on reworking a successful Iran deal North Korea tensions ease ahead of Winter Olympics MORE (R-Tenn.) on legislation that allows Congress to weigh in and vote on the deal.

Cardin, however, distanced himself from the decisions that his colleagues will make, saying the Iran deal is "a vote of conscience, not a litmus test of party loyalty or political acumen."

He added that the nuclear deal gives Iran a "legal path," even though it is "rouge state and has violated its international nonproliferation obligations for years."

"It would provide Iran with international endorsement of an industrial-scale nuclear program. Worse, Iran would be economically strengthened by frighteningly quick relief from sanctions and international economic engagement," he added. "If Iran violates the agreement, building international support for new sanctions would take too long to be effective."

Under the Iran agreement a United Nations embargo on selling arms to Iran would also be rolled back within five years, and an embargo on ballistic missiles in eight years. Both were things Cardin said that he "cannot support lifting."

Despite his opposition, Cardin said the agreement "does contain significant achievements" including "severe restrictions" on Iran's nuclear program in the short term and the ability to reapply sanctions if Iran violates the agreement.

In addition to Cardin, Sens. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezCongress must provide flexible funding for owners of repeatedly flooded properties Senate ethics panel resumes Menendez probe after judge declares mistrial Judge declares mistrial in Menendez bribery case MORE (D-N.J.) and Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration White House: Trump remarks didn't derail shutdown talks Schumer defends Durbin after GOP senator questions account of Trump meeting MORE (D-N.Y.) have said they will oppose the deal.

The Maryland Democrat said that regardless of Congress's vote on the Iran deal, he is planning to introduce legislation that would "strengthen" the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, passed earlier this year, and U.S. strategy in the Middle East.

That legislation is expected to codify the administration's policy that Iran can't be allowed to get a nuclear weapon, as well as clarifying that the nuclear deal doesn't stop Congress from passing sanctions legislation related to terrorism, human rights or ballistic missiles.

Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters last month that senators would likely pass a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act later this year, even though Tehran has suggested that would violate the nuclear deal.

Cardin's legislation would also support expedited consideration if lawmakers think Iran has carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or substantially boosted its support of terrorism.

"We must agree to counter Iranian support for terrorism and confront Iranian violations of ballistic missile protocols and international human rights obligations," Cardin added. "Congress and the administration cannot dwell on past disagreements; together we must find a functional, bipartisan approach to Iran."

Corker on Friday praised Cardin for his "incredibly deliberate and thoughtful" approach to the agreement.

"[I] know that the decision he announced today was very difficult for him but based on tremendous due diligence and careful consideration," he added. "The fact that the two Democrats who have spent the most time in understanding the details and impact of this deal do not support it speaks volumes."

But progressive outside groups quickly pushed back against Cardin's decision, with MoveOn.org's Political Action Executive Director Ilya Sheyman calling him "out of synch" with his party and Americans.

“Senator Cardin’s deeply troubling decision to oppose the historic diplomatic agreement with Iran amounts to support for another war," he said. "Senator Cardin’s position is far out of sync with the views of both the Democratic Party base as well as the majority of Americans, who support a diplomacy-first approach."

NIAC Action Executive Director Jamal Abdi called Cardin's decision "unconscionable," adding that it puts him "on the same side as Dick Cheney."

Abdi said lawmakers should "exercise serious caution" on Cardin's forthcoming legislation.

"Jeopardizing the implementation of the deal does not provide political cover, it undermines the entire point of voting for it," he added. "Congress needs to give the nuclear deal a chance to actually work. Political cover cannot come at the expense of helping kill the deal." 

This story was updated at 1:16 p.m.