It’s not usually hard to get lawmakers to agree to tough language on Iran, particularly when AIPAC is on board.
But a letter outlining the conditions Iran must meet in order for Congress to be willing to provide sanctions relief appears to have gone too far.
Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham were seeking signatures by July 16 for the letter, backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that was first distributed July 11, according to Reuters.
Two weeks later—and one week after the six-nation negotiating group announced it had extended the nuclear talks with Iran to Nov. 24—the letter still has not been sent to President Obama.
Some senators are wary that affixing their signature to the document would frustrate the nuclear talks and would mean that they must condemn any deal that does not meet all of the enumerated criteria. Among those are a 20-year, intrusive inspections regime that would allow the members of the P5+1 to independently verify Iranian compliance and the requirement that Iran disclose the full extent of its nuclear program before receiving sanctions relief from Congress. The letter also states that Congress expects to phase in the sanctions relief because it does not trust Iran to respect the terms of the deal.
The letter mirrors one sent in March by Menendez of New Jersey and Graham of South Carolina, along with 81 of their colleagues, except that the July letter explicitly states conditions of a deal, with the threat that “Our willingness to consider legislation to provide sanctions relief will be based on resolution of all of these issues in the context of a final agreement with Iran.”
Graham said that signing his name means he would vote down a deal that did not meet the criteria expressed in the letter.
Earlier this week, he estimated that they had gathered 20 signatures. Graham said they aim to send it to the president when they hit 30, and that he believed it could be sent Thursday.
“We’re not trying to get 100,” Graham said. “This letter’s tougher and we’re trying to get the committees of primary jurisdiction to send a signal to the White House.”
But leaders on both sides of the aisle in the relevant committees—Banking, Foreign Relations, and Armed Services—refuse to sign on.
“I don’t want to do anything to undermine the negotiations,” said Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the chair of the Armed Services Committee. “I think it’s a mistake to put in stone what I would vote against unless certain criteria were met.”
Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, also has not signed the letter. Nor has Armed Services ranking member James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, though he did send his own letter using stronger language about the negotiations.
“There’s not a good deal because if Iran agrees to something, they will break their word,” Inhofe said when asked what he would like to see in a November deal. “It’s a waste of time.”
Banking Committee ranking member Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican who signed the March letter, signed onto the latest letter. But Banking Chairman Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota, said he’s never seen it.
Other key Democrats are distancing themselves from the letter, including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
“I have not signed onto that letter,” said Shaheen, a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees who did sign the March letter. “I think this letter is more prescriptive. I’m not going to speculate on what should be in the deal with Iran.”
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island also signed on in March but hasn’t signed the July letter. Reed serves on the Banking and Armed Services Committees.
“I think the letter makes some good points,” Reed said, “but I think that any negotiation has to be a give and take and you have to allow the negotiators to reach a position and then evaluate if it is effective.”
But even Republicans who agreed to the March letter, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, thought the latest letter went too far. Sessions, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he wanted to give the president the chance to present and argue for his deal.
“I don’t want to gratuitously condemn or throw out suggestions as to what the right solution should be,” Sessions said. “I think the president should negotiate something and I think he should run it by Congress.”
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