Obama must convince many Democrats as well as Republicans on Iran nuclear deal

Congress strongly supports Israel, with many members pushing for tough sanctions on Iran. This is a challenge for President Obama trying to win support for the deal on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama makes a statement in the White House press briefing room Sept. 27 after speaking with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – the first contact in more than 30 years between the leaders of the two countries.

Congressional reaction to the break-through deal on Iran’s nuclear capabilities came quickly.

Democratic supporters of President Obama are hailing the agreement, although many emphasize the importance of tough sanctions and verification.

Most Republicans are highly skeptical, warning that any easing of sanctions on Iran, no matter what the requirements to restrict and reduce that country’s nuclear potential, makes things more dangerous for the US and the region – especially for Israel.

Some in the GOP say the Obama administration is making a big deal out of the agreement announced early Sunday morning in Geneva in order to divert public and political attention away from the disastrous roll-out of the Affordable Care Act.

“Amazing what WH will do to distract attention from O-care,” Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R) of Texas tweeted.

As the Monitor’s Scott Peterson reported from Geneva, the accord gives Iran up to $7 billion in sanctions relief in exchange for curtailing uranium enrichment and other steps to prevent expansion of its nuclear program.

Senator Tim Kaine (D) of Virginia, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, was guarded in his response.

“We will not tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons because that will make the region – and the world – dramatically less safe,” he said.

But, he added, “If this interim deal reduces stockpiles of enriched uranium to levels appropriate only for civilian use, halts uranium enrichment above dangerous levels, reduces technology that can be used to enhance enrichment, and imposes intrusive daily inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency that can give the world immediate warning if Iran plans to move toward nuclear weapons, it will be an important trust building step toward our ultimate goal.”

Several senior Democrats are likely to join Republicans – and oppose Obama – in pushing for tougher sanctions.

“It was strong sanctions, not the goodness of the hearts of the Iranian leaders, that brought Iran to the table, and any reduction relieves the psychological pressure of future sanctions and gives them hope that they will be able to gain nuclear weapon capability while further sanctions are reduced,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York said. “A fairer agreement would have coupled a reduction in sanctions with a proportionate reduction in Iranian nuclear capability.”

The agreement worked out in Geneva by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China) plus Germany – the “P5+1” – is a temporary six-month deal, meaning that the stiffer sanctions against Iran could be reimposed at any time.

Because it is not a formal treaty, it also means that it does not require US Senate ratification; President Obama’s approval alone is all that’s needed for now. That helps explain Republicans’ initial reaction, which has been universally critical. Some examples:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia: “I remain concerned that this deal does not adequately halt Iran’s enrichment capabilities. As this deal goes into effect, the United States must remain vigilant and respond immediately and severely to any cheating or wrongdoing by Iran. And we must rebuild our alliances in the region and stand firmly with our closest partners against Iranian aggression.”
 Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina: “Unless the agreement requires dismantling of the Iranian centrifuges, we really haven’t gained anything.”

Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois: “This deal appears to provide the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism with billions of dollars in exchange for cosmetic concessions that neither fully freeze nor significantly roll back its nuclear infrastructure.”

Rep. Ed Royce, (R) of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee: "Instead of rolling back Iran’s program, Tehran would be able to keep the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability. Yet we are the ones doing the dismantling – relieving Iran of the sanctions pressure built up over years."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida: "This agreement is a blow to our allies in the region who are already concerned about America's commitment to their security…. This agreement shows other rogue states that wish to go nuclear that you can obfuscate, cheat, and lie for a decade, and eventually the United States will tire and drop key demands.”

Sen. Rubio’s mention of “allies in the region” and Rep. Cantor’s of “our closest partners against Iranian aggression” are clear references to Israel, whose ability to sway congressional opinion is legendary.

Sen. Schumer’s comment about the Iran nuclear agreement and sanctions illustrates the difficulties for many in his party.

“All of this puts Democrats, who routinely win overwhelming support from Jewish Americans on Election Day, in an awkward position,” writes the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar. “Do they stand with the president on politically sensitive foreign policy issues, or stake their own course?” 

A big job now for Obama and other senior administration officials will be lobbying Democrats as well as Republicans to go along with the six-month Iran deal.

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