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Sole GOP senator who weighed support for Iran deal to vote no

Arizona lawmaker Jeff Flake says he backed the nuclear talks but can’t get behind the final accord

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, July 23, 2015. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, July 23, 2015. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake says he will vote against the nuclear deal with Iran, dealing a significant blow to the White House’s efforts to garner bipartisan backing for the controversial accord.

Flake, a freshman who had praised President Barack Obama for seeking a diplomatic solution, had been publicly undecided, making him a top target of the White House’s concerted lobbying campaign. Senate vote-counters had considered Flake the only truly undecided GOP vote, although his fellow Republicans had expressed confidence he would oppose it.

“I cannot vote in support of this deal,” Flake said in a statement Saturday issued while Congress was on its annual August recess.

“As written, this agreement gives Iran leverage it currently doesn’t have,” he added.

Flake said the benefits are outweighed by severe limitations placed on Congress and the US government’s ability to respond to Iran’s non-nuclear behavior.

“While Congress has received assurances from the administration that it does not forfeit its ability to impose sanctions on Iran for behavior on the non-nuclear side, these assurances do not square with the text of the [Iran agreement],” Flake said in the statement

While the deal “does contain benefits in terms of limiting Iran’s ability to produce sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon for a period of time, particularly at its known nuclear facilities…these benefits are outweighed by severe limitations the [agreement] places on Congress and future administrations in responding to Iran’s non-nuclear behavior in the region,” he went on.

Flake’s opposition to the deal all but guarantees that no Republicans — at least in the Senate — will back the deal, which Obama hopes will form a cornerstone of his foreign policy legacy by preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon for more than a decade. The White House offered no specific reaction to Flake’s announcement, but pointed out that in the last week, seven Democrats have announced their support.

All told, 20 Senate Democrats have backed the deal, with one — New York Sen. Chuck Schumer — opposing it. Forty-six House Democrats have supported the deal, compared to 10 who are opposed.

Flake, who has bucked Republican leadership on a number of issues in his first Senate term, had commended the administration for seeking alternatives to military action against Iran, inspiring optimism at the White House that he might back the final deal. Just a day earlier, Flake traveled to Cuba with Secretary of State John Kerry to attend the flag-raising at the reopened US Embassy in Cuba, another foreign policy move by Obama that most Republicans oppose.

Flake added that he’s concerned the Obama administration will be more reluctant to confront Iran’s behavior once the deal is implemented.

Congress has until September 17 to vote on a resolution either approving or disapproving the pact. Although Obama doesn’t need explicit congressional approval for the deal, the resolution could scuttle the deal by blocking Obama’s ability to lift harsh economic sanctions — the key concession that got Iran to agree to the deal.

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