Can Congress help Obama get a stronger Iran deal?

Both parties say that strong bipartisan support for an Iran bill in the Senate would give the US greater leverage to negotiate a better nuclear deal with Iran.

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee (c.) and the committee's ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland (r.) speak to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 14, 2015. The two leaders are working to defend Iran bill, as it faces poison pill amendments on the floor of the Senate.

Congress's ability to have a say on an Iran deal – and even to be a constructive force in negotiations with Tehran – depends on its ability to stay united on a bipartisan Iran bill on the Senate floor this week, supporters say.

Not only do supporters want guaranteed congressional review of any final deal with Iran, which is the purpose of the bill. They also believe that overwhelming support for the bill can help United States negotiators reach a better nuclear deal with Iran, particularly when it comes to verification and sanctions relief – two areas where Tehran and Washington disagree.

“A united Congress with the White House ... gives the administration a stronger hand on negotiations. A divided Congress – the distractions of us not working together – makes it less likely the administration has all the tools they need to deliver an effective agreement,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D) of Maryland, speaking with reporters on Monday.

Senator Cardin, the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worked closely with chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, to forge a carefully balanced bill that passed their committee unanimously April 14. The bill won grudging acceptance from the White House after the administration's most serious objections were removed – and after supporters neared a veto-proof majority in the Senate. 

Still, the two men are working hard this week to fend off votes for Republican “poison pill” amendments, some offered by presidential candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida. On Wednesday, Senator Rubio argued vigorously for an amendment that requires Iran to recognize Israel's right to exist. Another of his amendments says Iran must free US prisoners held by Tehran. 

Neither Democrats nor Republicans can argue with the sentiment, but the amendments, if passed, are sure to draw a veto from the White House because they would torpedo negotiations with Iran. Instead, Senators Corker and Cardin have been urging their colleagues to keep their eye on the bigger prize – a congressional say on the deal.

As Corker repeatedly reminds his colleagues, it was strong bipartisan support for congressional sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place.

Yes, in part. Congressional sanctions “contributed to their interest in negotiations,” says Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist with the Council on Foreign Relations. But international sanctions also played a critical motivating role, he says, as did Iran’s desire to preserve as much of its nuclear program as it could.

When the new GOP-controlled Congress tried to reassert itself on Iran earlier this year, the White House pushed back, vowing to veto new sanctions legislation as well as any mandate for congressional review. It argued the efforts would endanger the international negotiations with Iran, which were reaching a critical phase.

Lawmakers agreed to hold off on new sanctions legislation, but didn't want to give up their voice on a deal and instead fashioned the bipartisan bill that is now being debated on the Senate floor.

In the end, congressional unity on Iran will help an agreement outlast just this administration, says Mr. Takeyh.

"It certainly helps the durability of the deal, because once it's anchored in some kind of consensus between the legislative and executive branch, that helps the longevity of the agreement," he says.

Sometimes, presidents find backup support from Congress very helpful, says Senate historian Donald Ritchie. In the 1950s and '60s, presidents used congressional resolutions on Formosa (now Taiwan), Berlin, Cuba, and the Middle East to gain “psychological” advantage in their negotiations with other countries, he says.

On the other hand, lawmakers "don’t feel badly turning down the president," Mr. Ritchie says. He points to Senate rejection of the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty between Germany and the allied powers at the end of World War I. President Wilson strongly supported the treaty.

The current international talks to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon would result, if they succeed, in an agreement, not a treaty.

An agreement doesn’t need two-thirds ratification from the Senate, or any congressional approval, though some Republican senators argued this deal is so consequential that it should be treated as a treaty. An amendment to that effect – one of the poison-pill dealbreakers – failed on Monday, 39-57.

That failure was a sign that Corker and Cardin are being persuasive in their argument to protect the bill from non-germane amendments, however attractive they may be. On Wednesday they beat back another poison-pill that would have restored an anti-terrorism provision that the administration wanted out. It was defeated 45 to 54.

 The timing of sanctions relief is of particular concern to lawmakers in both parties. Tehran says publicly it expects sanctions relief as soon as a deal is reached. The White House and Congress argue that Tehran needs to prove itself first. Strong resolve on the Iran bill now could give the White House leverage on this and another area of disagreement in the talks – a robust inspection and verification process, senators say.

The US insists that international inspectors be able to go wherever they have suspicions, but Iran says military bases are off limits. So-called “anytime, anywhere” inspection is the “linchpin” of any deal, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, told reporters last week.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, who played a key role in formulating the Iran bill, agrees. “From the left, center, and right in the Senate ... it’s the inspections regime as the guarantor of Iranian compliance that is probably the piece that is most important.”

Senators in both parties disagree on what a final deal should look like. Some object to even the vastly reduced number of centrifuges that Iran will still be allowed. Others object to time frames in the deal. Others don't want a deal, period, because they don't trust Iran. So it's not clear whether Congress could even find the unity to approve – or disapprove – a deal if one is reached. 

But a strong show of bipartisan support now can only help secure a better deal, Senator Kaine and others argue.

Even as Iranian negotiators will turn to their parliament and supreme leader for approval, the US can argue, “Hey, I’ve got this tough Congress I need to convince,” says Kaine.

That is, if senators stick together. 

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