Iran deal catches Congress on recess, but alert and skeptical

Wary legislators renew calls for a Congressional vote on any comprehensive agreement

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

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Robert Menendez, D-NJ (left), talks with ranking member Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn. (right), on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 29, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Susan Walsh, File)
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Robert Menendez, D-NJ (left), talks with ranking member Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn. (right), on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 29, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON — Congress was on recess when news of the Iran deal broke Thursday afternoon, but even back home in distant districts, legislators who opposed the deal promised to take swift action when they return to Washington later this month.

The leader of the US House of Representatives, Republican Speaker John Boehner, said he was concerned about the emerging nuclear agreement and wanted Congress to review details of any pact before sanctions are lifted.

In a written statement, Boehner said his visit to the Middle East this week left him worried about Iran’s efforts to spread terrorism. He said it would be naive to think Tehran won’t use its nuclear program and any easing of economic sanctions “to further destabilize the region.”

Boehner said Thursday’s outline of a deal was “an alarming departure” from the White House’s original goals.

And while some Democratic representatives offered a cool response to the announcement that P5+1 negotiators had reached a political framework with Iran, one of the talks’ most vocal skeptics said he was waiting to see the details of the deal.

US Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, advocated for a dose of caution.

“A nuclear-armed Iran would lead to a less safe and less secure world, which is why the stakes are so high in the pursuit of a strong agreement that is fully enforceable, verifiable and is in our national security interests,” said Corker. “It is important that we wait to see the specific details of today’s announcement, and as the P5+1 works toward any final deal, we must remain clear-eyed regarding Iran’s continued resistance to concessions, long history of covert nuclear weapons-related activities, support of terrorism, and its current role in destabilizing the region.”

Corker reiterated his opposition to the current plan for a final deal, which would, in his words, “bypass Congress and head straight to the UN Security Council,” insisting instead that Congress must be allowed an up-or-down vote on any final agreement. Thursday’s deal was a stepping-stone as the P5+1 states and Iran look toward a June deadline for a comprehensive agreement.

Corker is the coauthor, together with Sen. Robert Menendez, of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which would require any final agreement with Iran to be submitted to Congress for a 60-day review period before congressionally mandated sanctions on Iran could be waived or suspended by the president. The Tennessee senator announced in March that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote on the legislation on April 14, after Congress returns from its recess. Corker maintains that despite the promise of a presidential veto, and strong administration pressure on Senate Democrats not to support the bill, there is “growing bipartisan support for congressional review of the nuclear deal.”

“I am confident of a strong vote on the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes it up on April 14,” he wrote in a statement Thursday.

Some Democrats toed a careful line–– not welcoming the deal with open arms, but not dismissing it either.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) released a statement in which he emphasized that “the prospect of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is simply intolerable, and I have long said that we must do everything we can do to prevent Iran from ever obtaining such weapons.”

“After months of work by the P5+1 international coalition, the president has announced a new framework aimed at preventing a nuclear Iran,” he continued, without noting his own opinion on the deal. “However, the specific details of the agreement must still be worked out over the next several months, and they will be critical to determining whether or not the negotiated agreement will be the most effective approach at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

“In order to properly and soberly evaluate this, we will also need to fully understand the alternatives to such an agreement,” Nadler added. “The ultimate question will not be ‘Is this the best deal in the world?’ but rather, ‘Is this the best course of action — from the courses available to us — to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons?’”

Rep. Lois Frankel’s (D-FL) response was even colder. “Iran is the largest state sponsor of terror and its nuclear program is a threat to America, to our allies in the Middle East, and to global order,” she wrote in a statement Thursday evening. “Our job in Congress is to hold the administration to its promise that no deal is better than a bad deal as the details of this initial framework are hammered out.”

The most prominent Democratic critic of the administration’s stance in the ongoing negotiations, Menendez (D-NJ), offered an unusually toned-down statement in which he continued to reassert the importance of the bill which he cosponsored with Corker.

“Led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, our negotiators have worked tirelessly throughout these talks and today’s announcement deserves rigorous review and analysis,” Menendez wrote, stopping short of explicitly praising the officials’ efforts or results. If anything, Menendez sounded cautious when he suggested that “in the coming days, this preliminary understanding will receive close scrutiny, and for that reason, Congress must fulfill its oversight responsibilities.”

But the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) praised the administration’s efforts, even while it acknowledged significant divides in voters’ opinions on the issue.

“We praise President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, along with their staffs, for their continued hard work on these negotiations and remain anxious for more details before the final agreement in June,” NJDC chair Greg Rosembaum wrote Thursday. “As we look towards a final deal and continuing negotiations, we are cautiously optimistic that a compromise can be reached that will satisfy all parties.”

Rosembaum acknowledged that “these talks are controversial both in the Jewish community and the wider American public — and particularly so in Israel,” but said that the organization was “encouraged by today’s announcement and hope that individuals from all sides of the aisle will recognize the significance of these agreed-upon parameters.”

Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), the co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus, wasted few words in his critique of the agreement.

“One year of talks has only yielded more talks and contours of a dangerous final agreement with Iran that makes no demonstrable progress on the legitimate security concerns of the American people and the international community,” Roskam complained. “The statement of progress announced today promises the Iranian regime everything it wants: billions of dollars in additional sanctions relief, renewed legitimacy on the international stage, and explicit permission to permanently maintain a robust nuclear infrastructure. In exchange the United States and our partners will get, at best, minimal restrictions on peripheral aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and more empty promises from a dictatorial regime that continues to sponsor the world’s worst terrorist organizations, imprison innocent American citizens, and call for the destruction of the United States and Israel.”

Roskam, like Corker, stressed that “Republicans and Democrats alike agree that any final deal must first come to Congress for a simple up-or-down vote.

“In the meantime, Congress should immediately consider bipartisan, prospective sanctions on Iran to ensure that, should the talks fail, the United States will immediately and forcefully ratchet up economic pressure on Tehran,” Roskam suggested. “While the administration has evidently lost sight of its own objectives in its desperation to demonstrate some semblance of progress in these talks, their initial measure of success remains true today — no deal is better than a bad deal.”

Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks also stressed that “now is the time for the Corker-Graham-Menendez bill to be passed so that this deal is transparent and has the necessary Congressional oversight.”

In a statement, Brooks wrote that “it is troubling that the Iranians are so elated with this agreement.”

AP contributed to this report

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