Obama fights to contain Republican rebellion over Iran nuclear deal

Apr 3, 2015 by


President calls several top lawmakers to insist deal is good for America
Congress demands say over the fine print of the nuclear agreement

President Obama in Kentucky
Several bills are working their way through Congress that could thwart the deal that was announced in Lausanne on Thursday. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Paul Lewis in Washington, patient Julian Borger in Lausanne, capsule Saeed Kamali Dehghan, and Peter Beaumont in Jerusalem


The White House was desperately trying to contain a congressional revolt against its tentative nuclear deal with Iran on Friday, amid concern that hardliners in Washington could sink the agreement before it has even been finalized.
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Republicans and some Democrats are demanding a say over the framework agreement, which would drastically cut Tehran’s nuclear program in return for relief of sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

Barack Obama, who has called several key legislators over the last 24 hours to convince them of the merits of the deal outlined in Switzerland, insists it will cut off every pathway that Iran could take to a nuclear weapon, and avoids a military conflict.

Speaking from Tehran, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, hailed the deal in a live address on state television on Friday, saying it would lead to a “new page” of cooperation with the international community and insisting his country would fulfil its obligations.

“The world should know that we are not deceptive and are not liars and any promises we give will be within the framework of our national interests and we will live up to our promises provided that the opposite side abides by its promises as well,” the moderate cleric said as he thanked the Iranian negotiators for the outcome in Lausanne, which he said was “win-win” for both sides.

But that view was not shared by everyone. The broad agreement, negotiated by the US and other world powers, is facing stiff opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill and received only a lukewarm reaction from Democrats.

There are several bills in the House and Senate that could scupper the deal.

The most likely to receive broad bipartisan support – brought by the Republican chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker – would prevent sanctions relief for 60 days, providing Congress space to review the deal, which is due to be completed at the end of June.

Corker said the bill will be put to a committee vote on 14 April, giving the Obama administration the two-week Easter recess to persuade Democrats not to support the legislation. Others in his party are demanding language that would effectively render the nuclear agreement a treaty requiring ratification by the Senate.

The White House has said Obama would veto Corker’s bill, but aides to the president are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of the legislation receiving the two-thirds majority that overrides the presidential veto. Such a scenario would seriously endanger the final stages of the talks.

Corker insists he has sufficient support from Democrats for a veto-proof majority.

“If Congress kills this deal – not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative – then it’s the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy,” Obama said on Thursday.

He added: “Do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented, backed by the world’s major powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East?”

His remarks were aimed at Democrats, rather than those Republicans who are working in partnership with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to scupper the deal.

Emerging from a meeting with his ministers and security officials yesterday, the Israeli prime minister showed his feelings towards the accord had not softened, declaring Israel would not accept a deal between world powers “which allows a country that vows to annihilate us to develop nuclear weapons”.

“This deal would pose a grave danger to the region and to the world and would threaten the very survival of the state of Israel,” he said.

Hawks in the US, meanwhile, were quick to dismiss what they called a “list of concessions” to Iran; Republican senator Mark Kirk compared the agreement to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

More moderate Republicans, however, reacted cautiously, raising questions about the deal but insisting they would need to inspect the fine print that emerges in June. “It is important that we wait to see the specific details of today’s announcement,” said Corker, who is open to amending his bill to ensure it has the Democratic backing required to override a presidential veto.
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Even some critics of the deal in Washington privately concede that the agreement was considerably more detailed, and tougher on Tehran, than they expected.

Western officials said on Friday Iran would have to fulfil a list of conditions in order to benefit from the bulk lifting of economic and financial sanctions, including an EU oil embargo and exclusion from the Swift electronic banking system.

Tehran would have to remove the core from its heavy water reactor in Arak, making it inoperable. It would have to dilute or export at least eight tons of low-enriched uranium, leaving it with only 300 kg. It would have to take out of service and put under seal two thirds of its installed centrifuges. It would have to accept an enhanced international inspection regime known as the additional protocol.

Most problematic, perhaps, it will have satisfy the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it is cooperating with the agency’s investigation into evidence of past work on nuclear weaponisation. That will mean providing access to sites and people suspected of having been involved in the work. That could give the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guard a veto over progress, as they control some of the sites and some of the individuals are from their ranks.

Western officials believe that Iran could fulfil this long list of conditions in a little more than six months, but that may be overly optimistic.

“Realistically, it will take Iran at least a couple of months to take the necessary nuclear steps that will allow us to provide sanctions relief,” said a European official. “Once the IAEA confirms that Iran has taken those steps, the EU will immediately terminate implementation of its economic and financial sanctions.”

Asked about domestic opposition to the deal, the White House said it was not opposed to Congress providing oversight over the final settlement, but was vehemently opposed to legislation that would either empower the legislature to approve the deal or otherwise prevent officials from finalising the detail.

“What would not be constructive is legislative action that essentially undercuts our ability to get the deal done and that is disruptive to the negotiations,” a senior official in the Obama administration said. “Do not do something that could derail the negotiations and leave the United States getting blamed for the collapse of talks.”
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The Obama administration has worked on two fronts during 18 months of talks. The president made the talks a priority for his top diplomat, secretary of state John Kerry, in the hope of achieving a defining, and much-needed, foreign policy legacy.

Back in Washington, administration officials have been doing back-room deals and strong-arming wavering Democrats. The White House has defused repeated threats of legislation it believed could weaken its hand or sabotage negotiations.

But its lack of leverage in Congress has long been Obama’s achilles heel, and lawmakers from both parties now argue they should have a say in the alleviation of sanctions that were imposed by the legislature in the first place.

The most senior officials in the Obama administration joined the president for a concerted drive to aimed at convincing lawmakers of the merits of the agreement.
Senators and representatives who had returned to their constituencies for recess were taking calls from several administration heavyweights, including White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, Treasury secretary Jack Lew and vice president Joe Biden.

Obama’s deputy press secretary, Eric Schultz, told reporters traveling with the president on Air Force One on Friday that the intensive lobbying campaign was “an initial reach-out” that would be followed by more detailed briefings.

Democrat Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate foreign relations committee, welcomed the agreement as “a positive step”, but reiterated his support for Corker’s bill, which he said allowed Congress to “weigh in on any final deal”.

Obama’s efforts to dissuade sceptics in his own party from undermining the agreement were dealt an unexpected boost on Thursday, when Bob Menendez, a Democratic hawk and a thorn in the administration’s side on Iran, was criminally indicted. Menendez was forced to step down from his position as the ranking Democratic member of the foreign relations committee after corruption charges were filed on Thursday, hours before the deal was unveiled.

His replacement, senator Ben Cardin, has said only that Congress “has a role to play” in reviewing the final nuclear agreement, and is expected to demand that Corker’s legislation is watered down in exchange for Democratic support.

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