Congress is growing hostile to the emerging nuclear deal with Iran, leaving President Obama with little political cover as he approaches a critical deadline in the talks.
Administration officials say they’re hoping to finalize an agreement by the end of the month. Should a deal be reached, it would transform U.S. and Iranian relations and potentially give Obama the most important foreign policy achievement of his second term.
The critics include not only Republicans, who have long hammered Obama’s approach to issues of war and peace, but Democrats who, echoing the concerns of Israeli leaders, say they fear the deal will leave Iran with nuclear weapons capabilities, thereby threatening allies like Israel and further destabilizing the region.
The pushback came to a head on Friday, when 367 House lawmakers wrote to Obama warning that a deal must “foreclose any pathway to a bomb” before they’ll support legislation lifting sanctions on Tehran — a near-certain condition if Iranian leaders are to agree to a deal.
“Should an agreement with Iran be reached, permanent sanctions relief from congressionally-mandated sanctions would require new legislation,” reads the letter, which was spearheaded by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“In reviewing such an agreement, Congress must be convinced that its terms foreclose any pathway to a bomb, and only then will Congress be able to consider permanent sanctions relief.”
Among those endorsing the letter were 129 Democrats — a show of rare bipartisanship in the divided 114th Congress, and one that raises plenty of questions about how much support Obama will have from his party if he reaches a deal that would almost certainly be opposed by leaders in Israel and the Republican Party.
Although top Democrats like Reps. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), James Clyburn (S.C.) and Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraBecerra: California ready to fight Trump administration House Dems to perform election autopsy Sanders vs. Trump: The battle of the bully pulpit MORE (Calif.) declined to endorse the letter, it won the support of several other prominent members, including Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Joseph Crowley (N.Y.).
Some Democrats in the upper chamber are also wary of the emerging deal. Behind Sen. Robert MenendezRobert MenendezThe right person for State Department is Rudy Giuliani Warren, Menendez question shakeup at Wells Fargo Democrats press Wells Fargo CEO for more answers on scandal MORE (D-N.J.), they’ve threatened legislation installing tougher Iran sanctions this year and are vowing a quick return to the proposal if no deal — or what they see as a bad deal — is reached.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are united in opposing the diplomatic effort, with 47 of them endorsing an open letter to Iran that warned a nuclear deal could be revoked by the next president with the stroke of a pen.
The letter from Senate Republicans carried a far more aggressive tone than the one sent by the House, something the White House was quick to note this week.
“We would anticipate that Congress would play its rightful role in considering, after Iran has demonstrated sustained compliance with the agreement, a measure that would, down the line, as they described, offer permanent sanctions relief from congressionally mandated sanctions,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Still, a number of liberal Democrats who declined to endorse the letter said this week that the effort was clearly designed to undermine the Iranian talks at a crucial juncture.
“The whole idea was to derail it, and they’re speaking for [Benjamin] Netanyahu,” said Rep. Jim McDermottJim McDermottDem to Trump on House floor: ‘Stop tweeting’ A record number of Indian Americans have been elected to Congress Levin will step down as top Democrat on Ways and Means MORE (D-Wash.), referring to the Israeli prime minister. “They leave no alternative, because they won’t even let him finish the negotiations. They’ve already decided we’re going to war.”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) delivered a similar message.
“The notion that we ought to weigh in on an agreement before there’s an agreement doesn’t make sense to me. Let’s see what the negotiators can negotiate,” he said. “If it’s a good deal, we should support it; if it’s a bad deal, then we can express our concerns then.
“We’re talking about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon without going to war,” McGovern added. “I would prefer to go down that road than go down the road of no deal and then people are rattling the sabers.”
Highlighting the prominence of the issue on Capitol Hill, Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerNetanyahu: 'No question' about Trump's support for Israel The Hill's 12:30 Report Boehner compares Trump to Teddy Roosevelt MORE (R-Ohio) took the rare step last month of opening the House floor to Israel’s prime minister, who used the venue to criticize Obama over the Iranian talks.
More than 50 Democrats boycotted that speech over both the topic and the decision by BoehnerJohn BoehnerNetanyahu: 'No question' about Trump's support for Israel The Hill's 12:30 Report Boehner compares Trump to Teddy Roosevelt MORE to extend the invitation without consulting the White House. Other Democrats who attended the speech grumbled about the process and timing.
But just weeks later, those criticisms have largely shifted from the politics surrounding Netanyahu’s speech to the policies surrounding Obama’s nuclear talks. And the gloves are coming off.
At a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Thursday, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) confronted Antony Blinken over the negotiations, accusing the deputy secretary of State of “misleading” the panel with claims that, under the potential deal, international inspectors could keep Iran’s nuclear program in check.
“You’ve said ... that, well, they can’t develop a nuclear weapon because that would be illegal,” Sherman said. “That’s a preposterous argument. Obviously, they’re willing to break the law.”