Expect Kerry, Congress to Clash Over Fragile Iran Nuclear Deal

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives to deliver the keynote address at the 10th Anniversary Saban Forum, Power Shifts: US-Israel Relations in a Dynamic Middle East, in Washington on December 7, 2013.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher and Stacy Kaper
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Sara Sorcher Stacy Kaper
Dec. 9, 2013, 5:18 p.m.

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.”

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