Will Congress kill an Iran nuclear deal? Two key senators warn Obama.

Either accept only a deal that dismantles, instead of merely stalling, Iran’s nuclear program, two key senators said in a statement issued Wednesday, or Congress will push ahead with a new round of tough sanctions on Tehran.

Susan Walsh/AP/FILE
In this July 29, 2014, file photo, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, left, (D) of New Jersey, talks with ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Two key senators – one a Republican, one a Democrat – are putting President Obama on notice concerning the nuclear deal his administration is trying to reach with Iran by the end of the month.

Either accept only a deal that dismantles – instead of merely stalling – Iran’s nuclear program, the senators say in a statement issued Wednesday, or Congress will push ahead with a new round of tough sanctions on Tehran.

The Iranian government has said repeatedly that another layer of sanctions from the US would end the diplomatic effort to limit Iran’s nuclear program.

At the same time, any deal Mr. Obama okays with Iran that doesn’t meet Congress’s generally more prohibitive conditions is likely to set off the same kind of firestorm that some members of Congress already have said would result from executive action on immigration.

Stating that “a good deal will dismantle, not just stall, Iran’s illicit nuclear program,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey and Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois warn that any deal that does not impose “stringent limits” on Iran’s nuclear research and development – and include “robust” inspections and verification “for decades” – will prompt swift action from Congress.

The two senators, who have been crucial players in past drives to slap painful sanctions on Iran’s economy, promise in the absence of a deal to their liking “to work with our colleagues in Congress to act decisively, as we have in the past.”

Senator Menendez is currently chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, but will lose that post when the new Republican-controlled Senate takes up in January.

The US is working with five other world powers – Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany – in negotiations with Iran that face a Nov. 24 deadline.

Obama has been careful in recent weeks not to offer any hints as to where he thinks the talks are headed or to suggest any undue optimism that a deal is likely. But senior administration officials (and officials from other countries involved in the talks) have said enough about the uranium enrichment capabilities Iran could be left with and the kind of sanctions relief Iran could secure in a deal, that many in Congress are openly worrying that Obama might accept a weaker deal than what they want to see.

Moreover, recent suggestions out of the administration that Obama might try to sidestep Congress in striking a deal with Iran have also set off alarms on Capitol Hill.

Congressional action would be required to permanently lift all existing sanctions on Iran, but the president has the power to suspend some sanctions. Administration officials have said they are looking into ways Obama could strike a nuclear-limits-for-sanctions-relief deal without immediately needing congressional approval.

Signs of congressional mistrust of Obama’s aims in the Iranian nuclear talks are not new. In July, Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee filed legislation that would require Obama to submit any deal with Iran for congressional review within three days of an agreement being reached.

Senator Corker, the highest-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, is likely to take over the committee chairmanship from Menendez.

Wednesday’s Menendez-Kirk statement offered a glimpse of the extremely high bar that Congress would likely set for any deal on Iran’s nuclear program. The two senators say any deal must not just stop Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon, but “prevent Iran from ever becoming a threshold nuclear weapons state.”

That’s a different standard for a deal from the one the administration cites. The “nuclear threshold” is something some nuclear experts say Iran may have already achieved (and something the administration says Iran is farther away from as a result of an interim deal with Tehran that went into effect in January), while others say it is terminology that could be difficult to define.

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