President Obama thinks his administration has won a key victory in striking a nuclear accord with Iran, and he's asking his secretary of State to protect it. But when John Kerry comes to Congress on Tuesday in the hopes of persuading Congress to back the pact, he should count on anything but a warm welcome.
Members are already saying the interim deal between world powers and Iran does nothing to dull Tehran's nuclear threat, and members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are already sharpening their knives: "Despite what the administration has said, this agreement does not hold Iran's nuclear program in its tracks," Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., told National Journal Daily.
For Kerry, it will be a familiar role: He's fresh off a Middle East trip attempting to reassure allies about the Iran deal.
But the stakes are especially high as a new round of talks resumes this week in Vienna. The White House has said negotiations might unravel if members of Congress follow through on threats to levy more sanctions, even if they take effect down the road.
Members, however, are not acquiescing. They fear sanctions relief will give Iran a "lifeline" just as it's beginning to cry uncle, Royce said, which could revive Iran's economy and, eventually, allow it to gain the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
Nailing down sanctions now — even if they are to begin after the six-month deal between world powers and Iran expires or founders — would give the U.S. "some leverage at the table," Royce argued. "Just because the president wants to play with a weaker hand doesn't mean that Democrats and Republicans in Congress should oblige."
In the Senate, new sanctions to target Iranian oil exports and revenue, foreign-exchange reserves held overseas, and additional sectors of the Iranian economy are under consideration. In the House, which passed similar sanctions in June, Majority Leader Eric Cantor is spearheading a bill to narrowly define the terms of an acceptable final nuclear deal.
Tuesday's hearing may turn into a wonkfest over contentious points on the negotiations, which aim to unwind a decadelong standoff over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
Members of Congress — as well as many leaders in Israel — object to the agreement because it does not require Iran to suspend enrichment and reprocessing activities. Critics say it's not enough that the Nov. 23 deal is meant to keep Iran's uranium enrichment below 5 percent, far below weapons-grade levels, and neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium in exchange for some $7 billion in sanctions relief.
"It's a terrible deal," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., in a recent interview. "I do not believe it's in the world's interest to allow Iran to have the capability to enrich and process uranium."
Iran is not exactly helping matters, either, given its continued construction of a plutonium reactor in Arak. Royce said lawmakers from both sides of the aisle raised that issue last week during a classified briefing with the State Department's Wendy Sherman and Treasury's David Cohen.
Amid the suspicion, there's fresh gossip on Capitol Hill about a secret plan to constrict Obama's flexibility on sanctions. Although the president has the legal option to waive the measures temporarily if it is in the U.S. national security interest, some aides on the Hill say Congress is seeking ways around him. "We have looked at how to restrict the president's ability to endlessly waive sanctions," a Senate aide said.
But all this may prove to be more bark than bite. Already there are fissures between those who say the deal is doomed to fail and those who want to give the White House a chance to negotiate. "None of us here take great stock of these numerous legislative proposals on Iran sanctions," said one House Democratic aide.
The longer Congress waits and diplomatic talks continue, the "less appetite there is to pass legislation that could somehow undermine the progress or implementation of the interim agreement — especially when there's absolutely no way the president is going to allow anything like this to become law," the aide said. "It's just tough talk."