Congress skeptical about Iran pact

McClatchy Washington BureauNovember 24, 2013 

Switzerland  Iran Nuclear Talks

A general view shows participants at the start of three days of closed-door nuclear talks in Geneva, Switzerland. It provided a breakthrough.


— President Barack Obama pressed Congress Sunday to support an agreement between Iran and world powers that would temporarily ease sanctions while curbing portions of Tehran’s nuclear program. Many members, including some senior members of his own party, reacted with skepticism.

The White House insisted that it does not need approval from Congress to go ahead with the deal announced in Geneva, Switzerland. Still, Obama called unidentified lawmakers Sunday, building on calls he started Saturday. He not only sought support. He worked to ward off any movement in Congress toward an increase in sanctions against Iran at the very moment he was arguing for a temporary easing in exchange for concessions from Iran.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday that the accord does not proportionately reduce Iran’s nuclear program for the economic relief Tehran is receiving.

“Until Iran has verifiably terminated its illicit nuclear program, we should vigorously enforce existing sanctions,” he said. “I do not believe we should further reduce our sanctions, nor abstain from preparations to impose new sanctions on Iran should the talks fail.”

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., warned that the “disproportionality of this agreement” makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when the Democratic-controlled Senate returns in December. “I intend to discuss that possibility with my colleagues,” he said.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the deal “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.”

Some Democrats, and even Republicans, did support the pact.

“By any standard, this agreement is a giant step forward and should not be undermined by additional sanctions at this time,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“This is a very important first step toward the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. “Under this interim agreement, Iran must halt or scale back parts of its nuclear program while we pursue a comprehensive deal. If Iran cheats, it will face even stiffer sanctions.”

In the House, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., asked Secretary of State John Kerry to appear before the committee.

“I have serious concerns that this agreement does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies,” Royce said in a statement. “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.”

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, requested that the White House provide a briefing for his members.

“The interim deal has been and will continue to be met with healthy skepticism and hard questions, not just of the Iranians, but of ourselves and our allies involved in the negotiations,” Boehner said.

The House already voted for new sanctions against Tehran in July, a measure that has not been taken up in the Senate.

Alireza Nader, a senior international policy analyst specializing in U.S.-Iran relations at RAND Corp., said Sunday that he is not surprised by the level of opposition but that it’s still important for Obama to get lawmakers on board. “Congress can do things to hurt negotiations over the next several months,” he said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Sunday that administration officials were not able to reach lawmakers as promptly as they had hoped because of the late hour of the agreement Saturday.

“Last night and certainly over the course of today there’ve been a number of conversations between senior White House officials and members of Congress," he said aboard Air Force One as Obama flew to the West Coast for a three-day trip.

Earnest declined to say whether Obama would veto a bill that increased sanctions against Iran.

“We want to work closely with Congress and despite the impertinent tweets of some members of the Senate Republican conference … most senators recognize that there is a constructive and important role for Congress to play as we move forward, and we will certainly be consulting closely with them,” he said.

He was referring to a tweet by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, suggesting that the agreement was meant to be a distraction from the problems rolling out the new health care law.

The agreement came after Obama and Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, began exchanging letters this summer, followed by a historic telephone call between the two leaders. At the same time, the U.S. and Iran had been engaging in secret talks since March, the Associated Press reported Sunday. Meeting in Oman, the talks included Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Vice President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan, the AP said.

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