WASHINGTON -- Iran, the U.S., and its five negotiating partners announced a historic nuclear agreement on Tuesday morning that will dismantle much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in return for sweeping sanctions relief.
The agreement is the result of years of tense negotiations and a vindication of one of President Barack Obama’s first campaign promises: to pursue aggressive diplomacy with Iran. But before the Obama administration can declare victory, the agreement must survive the scrutiny of skeptics in Congress.
A handful of Republican lawmakers decried the nuclear agreement as the Obama administration kowtowing to Iran and vowed to block the president from carrying out implementation of the deal.
“This proposed deal is a terrible, dangerous mistake that is going to pave the path for Iran to get a nuclear weapon, while also giving them tens of billions of dollars of sanctions relief, even lifting the arms embargo at a time when they’re destabilizing the entire Middle East,” said freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), now infamous for authoring a letter to the Iranian regime threatening to unwind any nuclear agreement after Obama leaves office.
“The American people are going to repudiate the deal, and I believe Congress will kill the deal,” Cotton continued.
"This Iran deal gives Ayatollah Khamenei exactly what he wants: billions of dollars in sanctions relief, validation of the Iranian nuclear program, and the ability to stymie inspections,” echoed Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) “By paving Iran's path to a nuclear weapon, the deal harms American national security and effectively stabs our close ally Israel, which Iran has threatened to wipe off the map, in the back. Congress needs to move swiftly to block this dangerous deal.”
Despite Cotton’s confidence in Congress to sabotage the nuclear agreement, leading members of his party appear to be taking a more measured approach. “I want to read the agreement in detail and fully understand it, but I begin from a place of deep skepticism that the deal actually meets the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “In the coming days, Congress will need to scrutinize this deal and answer whether implementing the agreement is worth dismantling our painstakingly constructed sanctions regime that took more than a decade to establish.”
Corker is the author of legislation passed in May, which gives Congress two months to review the nuclear agreement reached by the six powers in Vienna on Tuesday. At the end of the review, lawmakers may pass a resolution of approval, a resolution of disapproval, or do nothing. A vote of disapproval, which would need the support of two-thirds of both the House and the Senate to override a presidential veto, would revoke the president’s authority to temporarily waive sanctions implemented by Congress. On Tuesday morning, Obama vowed to veto any legislation that impedes implementation of the nuclear agreement.
Congressionally enacted sanctions make up only a portion of the sanctions relief provided to Iran under the agreement, but a failure of the U.S. to deliver its entire end of the deal may compel Iran to renege on its obligations as well. According to the State Department, there is no loophole available to the president.
“If a joint resolution of disapproval is enacted during the period for congressional review, then the legislation restricts the President’s ability to provide statutory sanctions relief to Iran pursuant to a comprehensive deal or the Joint Plan of Action, thereby lessening the incentive for Iran to take the steps necessary to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of their nuclear program as they would have committed to do under a comprehensive deal,” a State Department official told The Huffington Post before the announcement of the nuclear agreement.
The Obama administration appeared confident that implementation of the deal would move forward during the congressional review period. Even if all Republicans vote against the agreement, critics of the Iran deal would still need to convince 13 Democrats in the Senate and 43 in the House to break with Obama.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tasked with whipping her party into voting to preserve the nuclear agreement, praised the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts with Iran on Tuesday. “The historic nuclear agreement announced today is the product of years of tough, bold and clear-eyed leadership from President Obama,” she said. “I commend the President for his strength throughout the historic negotiations that have led to this point. I join him in commending Secretary [of State] Kerry and Secretary [of Energy] Moniz for their leadership.”
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) similarly lauded the president and his diplomatic coup. “The United States, working with our allies, has reached a historic agreement with Iran that, according to President Obama and Secretary Kerry, will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I commend our negotiators for this critical effort. Finding a diplomatic solution will make our country, our allies, and the world a safer place,” he said.
Other lawmakers urged their colleagues to abandon party loyalty and to judge the nuclear agreement only after a thorough reading of the 159-page text.
“If the agreement is flawed it should be rejected; at the same time, we must not compare the proposal to an ideal, but rather to any credible alternative. Will rejection of the deal lead to additional sanctions and an Iran willing to concede more, or to renewed enrichment and a path to war?” noted Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee. “These are the stakes and our decision should be made with sober thought and a minimum of partisan demagoguery."
If Congress fails to revoke Obama’s ability to deliver on sanctions relief, it could still complicate the nuclear deal by passing additional sanctions. Lawmakers have already voiced their commitment to maintaining and possibly increasing sanctions against Iran for its intercontinental ballistic program, support for terrorism, and human rights abuses. While the nuclear deal does not preclude new economic punishment for non-nuclear matters, it could be viewed by Iran as a violation of the spirit of the agreement.
Already, Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) have introduced a bill to extend the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996, now set to expire in December 2016, for an additional 10 years. It is unclear if they will continue to pursue this effort, as part of the 1996 sanctions is included in the relief package promised to Iran in exchange for surrendering the bulk of its nuclear program.