Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee displayed remarkable cohesion last week in forcing President Obama to go along with a measure to give Congress an important say in whether to move ahead with a final nuclear non-proliferation deal with Iran l this summer.
Obama, who fears congressional meddling in his difficult talks with Iran, reluctantly agreed not to use his authority to lift congressionally mandated economic sanctions against Tehran for at least 30 days after a final agreement is struck in late June. In that way, he would give lawmakers time to decide whether to go along with the deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program or vote on a resolution of disapproval.
As the Senate prepares to take up a bill this week memorializing that procedural understanding between Congress and the White House, some Republicans are complaining that Obama is pressing for a final agreement with Iran at almost any price.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) – arguably the most even-handed Republicans in negotiating with the White House and Democratic leaders – complained on Sunday that the administration for months has been making major concessions to the Iranians while Tehran has stood firm in its initial demands.
“There has been a concern all the way that Iran has kept its position and we have continued to move towards it, and I think that’s why you saw the overwhelming vote this week in the Foreign Relations Committee” to give Congress a say, Corker said during an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union program.
The Foreign Relations Committee vote 19 to 0 last week to approve a measure giving Congress at least 30 days to consider a final signed agreement before Obama could waive or suspend any congressionally mandated sanctions against Iran. During that period, Congress could vote its disapproval of the agreement – although such action would be subject to a veto.
The latest GOP concern stems from Obama’s statements last Friday seemingly signaled the administration’s willingness to be more flexible in negotiating a compromise with Iran over the lifting of sanctions that have seriously damaged Iran’s economy and helped bring its leaders to the bargaining table.
Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials initially said that the tentative agreement reached April 2 in Switzerland calls for a gradual lifting of sanctions, as Iran makes good on its pledge to curtail its nuclear program.
However, top Iranian leaders have subsequently insisted that the sanctions would be lifted as soon as a written accord is signed by Iran, the U.S. and five other European countries that have been taking part in the negotiations.
During a joint press conference on Friday with Italian Prime Minister Matteo, Obama suggested that negotiators seek a compromise “more acceptable to Iran’s political leadership and factions, while still maintaining leverage to force Tehran to stick to its promises.
“How sanctions are lessened, how we snap back sanctions if there’s a violation, there are a lot of different mechanisms and ways to do that,” Obama said.
Corker and other Republican leaders want the sanctions be lifted gradually to enable the U.S. and its allies to continue to have leverage over the Iranians.
“I think it’s very important that the sanctions be phased so that we see how Iran is behaving and whether they are actually living up to the arrangement,” Corker said. “… to alleviate those [sanctions] on the front end obviously just gives them immediately more money to conduct terrorist acts throughout the Middle East and to continue the hegemony that they have been involved in for the last several years.”
Beyond the question of when the sanctions should be lifted is the equally troubling matter of the disposition of Iran’s four major nuclear research sites.
There was a time when Israel and the U.S. warned of the possibility of air strikes against Iran to knock out facilities that were designed to enrich uranium and potentially could develop a nuclear weapon that could be used against Israel and others in the Middle East.
Yet under the terms of the tentative “framework” that emerged from the talks, roughly 5,000 centrifuges will remain spinning enriched uranium at the Natanz facility – about half the number currently running – while the heavily fortified underground facility at Fordo will be partly converted to advanced nuclear research and the production of medical isotopes.
While Iran insists that its goal has been to develop nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes, “One of the biggest concerns that people have is that Iran today has the ability through covert action to do anything that they wish,” Corker said. “And there’s a lot of questions right now, when you start teasing out the details from Secretary Kerry and others,” concerning the speed with which inspectors could gain access to the Iranian nuclear facilities.
He said the last thing Americans wants is a repeat of the failed efforts of the U.S. and international weapons inspectors to gain access to suspected chemical and nuclear weapons plants in Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein. “They kept moving the ball and for months and months and months we didn’t have the ability to get in,” he said.
Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee and a key negotiator of the congressional oversight bill, dismissed suggestions that Obama has been too eager to close a deal with Iran.
“Look at what’s been accomplished over the last many months,” he said on CNN. “We’ve not only kept Iran’s program in check, there’s actually been a reduction of their capacity to be able to produce the nuclear materials for a weapon. The framework agreement has been adhered to by Iran. Many people thought that would not be the case.”
“Now we need to make sure they cannot produce a nuclear weapon and we have the right to inspect to make sure we know what they’re doing,” he added.
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