Battle over Iran deal shifts to DC corridors of power

With talks completed in Vienna, it’s US legislators’ turn to fight their corner on the contentious nuclear agreement

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), left, shakes hands with ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) during a committee markup meeting on the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran on April 14, 2015. (JTA/Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), left, shakes hands with ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) during a committee markup meeting on the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran on April 14, 2015. (JTA/Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — After weeks of watching negotiators in Vienna push for a nuclear agreement, Washington’s legislators and lobbyists will finally get their opportunity to have their say on the world powers’ deal with Tehran.

For deal skeptics, like Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and his Republican counterpart Bob Corker of Tennessee, this will be the culminating act in a years-long drama surrounding the talks. The two – joined by others including Mark Kirk (R-IL) and more recently freshman Tom Cotton (R-AR) – have led a hard-line approach toward Iran that included pushing for increased sanctions and tight oversight of negotiations.

Corker is largely responsible for what is about to happen now.

According to the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 — legislation sponsored by Corker and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) that President Barack Obama reluctantly signed into law in May — Congress is entitled to review the entire agreement signed with Iran. Because the deal was reached after July 9, Congress will have up to 60 days after receiving complete copies of the deal to review the terms.

At the end of the review period, which will now extend beyond the August recess to when Congress reconvenes in September, Congress will hold an up-or-down vote to either approve of the deal or express its disapprobation.

Either outcome will have originated in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Corker, which hosted a long series of hearings on the implications of the deal, starting months before the agreement was concluded.

A vote of disapproval would limit Obama’s ability to lift a number of Congress-imposed sanctions against Iran. For cash-strapped Tehran, sanctions relief is one of the cornerstones of the nuclear agreement.

The Republican-controlled Congress is indeed likely to voice disapproval one way or another with the deal, which has been critiqued by almost all of the party’s leaders. But as with any other legislative process, there’s a catch — in nearly the same breath as he announced that a deal had been reached, US President Barack Obama vowed to veto any congressional attempt to sink it.

When that happens, the deal’s opponents would have to enlist enough Democratic votes to overturn the presidential veto, which requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate (and the House of Representatives). In other words, the president only needs to secure 34 Democratic votes in the Senate to ensure that the deal stands; there are currently 54 Republican, 44 Democratic and two independent senators (both of whom caucus with the Democrats).

Enter the lobbyists.

Pro-deal groups, like Americans for Peace Now, J Street and the National Iranian American Council have been relatively quiet in recent weeks, saving advertising funds and lobbying momentum for this precise moment.

These groups and others will now launch a concerted effort to make sure that key Democratic senators like Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Ben Cardin toe the line. The administration will also go full throttle to avoid a falling away of Democratic support during the 60-day review period.

Last week, White House officials reportedly held a sort of a pre-game huddle, during which they pushed representatives of groups who support the deal to “blitz” Capitol Hill to pressure Democrats to support the deal.

On the opposite side, AIPAC and lobbyists representing intensely Iran-phobic states like Saudi Arabia are likely to push hard against what they will probably argue is a historic mistake.

And the lobbying would only intensify after a presidential veto, as Congress will have as long as three weeks to try to enlist the 67 Senate votes necessary to override Obama.

Beyond the Herculean task of amassing more than a dozen Democratic senators to go against the president, the deal’s congressional opponents have other ideas on how to spoil any administration victory celebrations over a successful deal.

Even before the deal was struck, its opponents in Congress were floating a number of other options. First and foremost, legislators are considering finding ways to block Obama from being able to lift the sanctions on Iran.

The congressional leadership could also simply put the deal up for a vote of approval, which it would almost certainly lose. At that point, the president wouldn’t have anything to veto (he can’t veto a resolution that has failed), but would have to explain why he was sticking with a deal even when the voice of the people – the legislature – had clearly expressed its disapproval.

With a handful of legislative tricks still in the bag, the fight against the agreement may take on outsize proportions in a year in which a number of Republicans – including Senators Lindsay Graham (South Carolina), Marco Rubio (Florida), Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Ted Cruz (Texas) – are all jockeying for the support of the party’s base in the upcoming presidential primaries.

With the first candidate-selecting caucus a little more than six months away, opposition to the deal on the Senate floor could become a platform for Republicans to sharpen their own hawkish credentials, not just in contrast to Obama – and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton – but in seeking to differentiate themselves from their fellow party members.

The negotiations in Vienna may be over, but for the Obama administration the battlefield has simply shifted. Now, instead of the cordial back-and-forth of professional diplomats, the administration must convince a rancorous Washington that years of effort have yielded a worthwhile result.

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