Obama Seals Iran Deal as Cheney Warns of Consequences

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks on a nuclear deal with Iran at American University in Washington August 5. Obama secured 41 votes in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday for the deal with Iran, enough to block any resolution disapproving the agreement. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Updated | Three key Democratic senators announced their support for the Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday, giving President Barack Obama enough support to block any resolution disapproving the agreement and a major victory over opponents of the deal.

As Congress returned from its August recess and began debate on the Iran agreement, Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Gary Peters of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon announced their support for the deal. Their backing gives Obama 41 votes in favor of the accord—enough to deny Republican and a handful of Democratic opponents the 60 votes needed to bring a disapproval resolution to the floor for a vote under Senate rules.

"This agreement with the duplicitous and untrustworthy Iranian regime falls short of what I had envisioned," Wyden, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. "However I have decided the alternatives are even more dangerous."

In a statement, Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said: "I will vote to support the proposed agreement concerning Iran's nuclear program and against the resolution of disapproval before the Senate," Blumenthal said in a statement. "My two paramount goals have been to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and to do so by peaceful means."

Until now, it appeared that Obama would be forced to use his veto to strike down any resolution rejecting the Iran deal and then rely on the support of 38 Senate Democrats and independents to block the two-thirds majorities in both chambers needed to override his veto. But with the support of the three additional Democrats, that process would be cut short. Maria Cantwell of Washington is now the only Democratic senator who remains undecided.

It remained unclear how the Senate and House will schedule votes on the Iran deal over the next two weeks. Congress has until September 17 to vote on the agreement, which severely constrains Iran's nuclear program for at least 15 years in exchange for lifting the international sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy. GOP leaders have said the House, where Republicans hold the majority and control the floor, is likely to vote first so that at least one chamber is on record as opposing the deal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged Democrats to refrain from blocking a vote on the Iran nuclear deal, citing overwhelming bipartisan support for a law passed in July that gives Congress 60 days to review and vote on the Iran accord. But last week, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid proposed a deal: He won't ask his fellow Democrats to prevent a final vote on the Iran deal if McConnell agrees to a higher threshold for passage. Reid repeated his proposal Tuesday. "I've offered Leader McConnell the chance to go straight to a vote on passage of the resolution," Reid said in a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. "But of course, as he has noted many times in the past, everything of importance in the Senate requires 60 votes. So passage will require 60 votes."

In citing McConnell's past remarks, Reid was referring to the period from 2007 through the end of 2014, when Democrats controlled the Senate and McConnell, as minority leader, led repeated filibusters, saying that big issues called for the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome filibusters.

McConnell on Tuesday repeated his call for an an up-or-down vote on the Iran deal, without what he called "a filibuster or artificial limits on passage"—an apparent reference to Reid's proposal.

"The Senate should not hide behind procedural obfuscation to shield the president," he said. "While [Obama] will be out of office in a few months, the rest of the country and the world will have to deal with the predictable consequences of the president's deal for far longer than the next year and a half."

It's not clear, however, if all the senators who support the deal will vote to block a final vote on the Iran deal.

Meanwhile, Republicans intensified their criticism of the Iran deal Tuesday as former Vice President Dick Cheney entered the debate for the first time, warning that the agreement clears the path for an Iranian nuclear attack on the United States.

Cheney, speaking before an audience at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, said that provisions in the agreement that also lift restrictions on Iran's ballistic missile program after eight years "will give Iran the means to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland."

"I know of no nation in history that has agreed to guarantee that the means of its own destruction will be in the hands of another nation, particularly one that is hostile," Cheney said. "What President Obama is asking the United States Congress to do is unique—historically and dangerously unique. The results may be catastrophic."

Cheney's warnings of a possible Iranian nuclear attack on the United States raised the level of Republican rhetoric opposing the accord and echoed a point emphasized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his efforts to persuade U.S. lawmakers to reject the deal.

Cheney cited remarks by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter a week before the July 14 accord was announced, in which Carter noted that "the 'I' in ICBM stands for 'intercontinental,' which means having the capability to fly from Iran to the United States, and we don't want that." ICBM is the acronym for an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Cheney also challenged Obama's assurances that the deal guarantees Iran would require at least a year to achieve breakout—the term used for a country's dash to develop a nuclear weapon.

"Detecting elements of a country's nuclear program and predicting how close it is to breakout is a notoriously difficult intelligence task," he said. "It is one we have failed at time and time again."

He cited the U.S. failure to predict the first Soviet nuclear bomb test in 1949, the first Chinese test in 1964, the first Indian test in 1974, Pakistan's first test in 1998 and the first North Korean test in 2006. But he made no mention of his own use of erroneous intelligence that Iraq was close to developing a nuclear weapon to justify the U.S. 2003 Iraq invasion.

Reid later responded caustically to Cheney's remarks. "There are a lot of good reasons for this deal, but the best is that Cheney's against it," he told CNN. "I mean, think about this: The architect of the worst foreign policy decision in the history of America—to invade Iraq. Look what it has done. Why would anyone with any degree of intelligence agree with him?"

This story has been updated with new comments from Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell on voting, and with Reid's response to Cheney.