Congress could thwart Iran deal

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The Obama administration appears to be on the verge of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran after three and a half decades of low-level warfare.

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Now comes the hard part: convincing Congress.

Skeptical lawmakers are gearing up to thwart efforts to lift the pressure on Iran. Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) warned this week that he may introduce legislation making it harder for President Obama to loosen existing sanctions, while several others have vowed to slap on new ones.

“The United States should negotiate from a position of strength, not weakness,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a possible 2016 presidential contender, said in a statement Friday. “If the reports are correct, this is a terrible deal, and it is dangerous for America.”

President Obama has sought to reassure lawmakers that any loosening of sanctions would only bring “very modest relief” to Iran while laying the groundwork for a longer-term deal. The deal being contemplated in Geneva would unfreeze several billion dollars in Iranian assets abroad if Iran puts the most advanced aspects of its nuclear program on hold, notably the production of highly enriched uranium that's close to weapons-grade.

Republican skepticism was buoyed after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the unprecedented step of denouncing the proposal as a “very, very bad deal” on Friday ahead of a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry. Obama and Netanyahu spoke by phone Friday afternoon.

A “colossal blunder,” Senate Foreign Relations member Jim Risch (R-Idaho) then proceeded to call it. “Worse than no deal at all,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) agreed.

The deluge of criticism has put Democrats in a bind.

Unwilling to derail one of Obama's top second-term foreign policy objectives, they remain as deeply skeptical of Iran as their Republican colleagues. The House passed legislation cracking down on Iran's energy sector on a 400-20 vote in July and members of both parties have been pressing the Senate to follow suit since then.

“I am closely following reports from Geneva that negotiators may soon finalize the parameters of an interim agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program,” House Foreign Affairs ranking member Eliot Engel (D-Calif.), the co-author of the House sanctions bill, said Friday. “While I support the President’s efforts to engage with Iran, I am deeply troubled by reports that such an agreement may not require Tehran to halt its enrichment efforts.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), another Democratic hawk on Iran, remained silent on Friday. But he told CNN on Wednesday that he did “not understand ... a negotiating posture in which we suspend our actions, we give them sanctions relief on existing sanctions, yet they continue to be able to enrich, to be able to have more sophisticated centrifuges.”

Some advocates of a deal have blamed Netanyahu for putting Obama in a difficult position with Congress.

“Given Netanyahu's outburst,” former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told Global Post, “we will now likely have a major debate between some in Congress and the administration over Iran at a time when national unity and supporting the president would be the far more effective and desirable alternative.”

Other experts think they may have a solution.

“In the long term, if [Obama] wants to get a deal that sticks, he's going to need to find a way to cooperate with Congress,” said Blaise Misztal of the Iran Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The White House has asked Senate leaders to delay a vote on the bill, but Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has promised to take up the effort as an amendment to the pending Defense bill. Misztal's proposal: Have the Senate pass the House sanctions now, but hold off on its implementation.

Misztal's proposal would subject the sanctions to a trigger that would be pulled if Iran reneges on its interim commitments or fails to reach a final deal after six months or so. Congress would also pass legislation detailing what a final deal should look like.

“It's an attempt to thread the needle in two senses,” Misztal told The Hill. “One is it tries to give both carrots and sticks [to Iran] and it's also an attempt to thread the needle between both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue, trying to give the president more authority to give Iran sanctions relief … but also give lawmakers a bit more of a say in what that deal looks like, which they currently don't have and which I think is part of the reason there's some anger on Capitol Hill.”

If Congress doesn't give Obama the authority to loosen sanctions, Misztal warned, the president won't be able to strike a final deal – and erstwhile allies on the international sanctions effort such as Russia and China may bolt. On the flip side, he said, the trigger approach would be a good option for Capitol Hill hawks because it would make it easier to pass new sanctions even after several months of diplomacy.

“That's one of the major concerns, how easy will we be able to go back to the status quo ante if the interim deal fails?” he said. “It's probably going to be a lot easier for Iran to flip the switch and turn back on any centrifuges it turns off as part of this deal then it's going to be for the international community to regroup and re-exert the sort of pressure that's been building over the past couple of years.”