Iran Was the Easy Part: Obama Takes His Nuke Deal to Congress

U.S. President Barack Obama walks out of the Oval Office and down the White House colonnade in Washington on April 2, 2015 to make a statement about the framework agreement on Iran's nuclear program announced by negotiators in Switzerland. Mike Theiler/Reuters

Now begins the hard part: selling the Iran nuclear framework agreement to a very skeptical Congress and worried allies in the Middle East.

The Republican presidential candidates represent an additional hurdle for Obama, as they will rally the conservative faithful against the deal and help whip up a climate in which it will be difficult for any GOP hopeful to go along with the agreement.

With Thursday's announcement that Iran and six major powers had reached the accord, President Barack Obama has scored a major diplomatic achievement. The deal sets the stage for a possible final agreement that could defuse the threat of a nuclear Iran for decades to come and provide his presidency with historic foreign policy and nonproliferation legacies. Over the next three months, negotiators from Iran, the United States and five other parties--Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany--will work out the technical details of a final accord to meet a June 30 deadline.

But convincing Congress to accept the framework agreement will be a daunting political challenge for Obama. The president began his sales pitch in an address Tuesday on the White House lawn, declaring that if the accord is implemented it will cut off all of Iran's various paths to a nuclear weapon. He noted it would limit Iran's uranium fuel production to levels far too low to make a weapon, eliminate its plutonium production entirely and impose "unprecedented" inspections to foil any covert efforts to produce a bomb. The duration of some elements of the accord would be 10 years; others would be 15 and 25 years. Some features, like inspections, would remain in force indefinitely.

Obama said sanctions relief would be phased in over time and only come about if Tehran verifiably meets its obligations under the accord. If any violations are detected, the sanctions would immediately snap back, he said.

"It is a good deal. It meets all of our core objectives," Obama said. "It's not based on trust. It's based on verification.... If Iran cheats, the world will know it."

Turning to Congress, Obama cautioned lawmakers against taking any legislative actions that could scuttle the accord. "The issues at stake here are bigger than politics," he said. "These are matters of war and peace, and they should be evaluated based on the facts and what is ultimately best for the American people and for our national security," he argued.

The president also noted that the accord involved not only Iran and the United States, but the world's major powers as well. "If Congress kills this deal--not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative--then it's the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy," he warned. "International unity will collapse, and the path to conflict will widen." Inevitably, Obama added, the United States would have to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, and Americans would be drawn into another Middle East war.

No Easy Sell

Yet even with such arguments, Congress will not be an easy sell. After four decades of hostility and conflict with Tehran's revolutionary Islamic regime, lawmakers remain highly suspicious of its intentions. Those suspicions only intensified following an extraordinary March 3 speech that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered to a joint meeting of Congress. In open defiance of Obama, the Israeli leader told lawmakers that any accord that didn't entirely eliminate Iran's capacity to enrich uranium was a "bad deal" that would "pave Iran's path to a bomb."

Moreover, both Republicans and many Democrats also want Congress to have the authority to approve a final nuclear accord, arguing that the issue of Iran's nuclear program is important enough to warrant congressional involvement. Obama wants any accord to be an executive agreement, requiring only the president's signature.

Only hours after the framework accord was announced, House Speaker John Boehner provided a taste of what Obama can expect from Republicans. "The parameters for a final deal represent an alarming departure from the White House's initial goals," Boehner said. "My longtime concerns about the parameters of this potential agreement remain, but my immediate concern is the administration signaling it will provide near-term sanctions relief. Congress must be allowed to fully review the details of any agreement before any sanctions are lifted."

Boehner also alluded to his trip this week to the Middle East, where he met with Netanyahu and Arab leaders who are also wary of Iran. "After visiting with our partners on the ground in the Middle East this week, my concerns about Iran's efforts to foment unrest, brutal violence and terror have only grown," he added. "It would be naïve to suggest the Iranian regime will not continue to use its nuclear program, and any economic relief, to further destabilize the region."

Also defying Obama, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would go ahead with plans for his panel to vote on a measure he authored that would require any final agreement with Iran to be submitted to Congress for a 60-day review period before the president could use his waiver authority to suspend congressionally mandated sanctions on Iran. The measure is expected to win both committee approval and full Senate passage.

"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 said in a statement. "If a final agreement is reached, the American people, through their elected representatives, must have the opportunity to weigh in to ensure the deal truly can eliminate the threat of Iran's nuclear program and hold the regime accountable."

Obama has threatened to veto the bill, along with another measure that would impose additional sanctions against Iran. Lawmakers have threatened to override the president's veto, but it's far from clear Obama's critics could muster the two-thirds' majorities in the House and Senate needed for an override. "We think the best course for Congress is to look at the framework and give the negotiators the time and space to negotiate a final deal," a senior administration official said, adding that Congress would have a role in providing oversight of the agreement. Also, the official said, Congress would get a chance to weigh in on any final agreement if it votes to permanently lift sanctions on Iran.

Soothing Netanyahu

The White House said Obama called Netanyahu from Air Force One on Thursday to brief him on the framework accord and assure him that the deal was the best way to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. The leaders have an especially toxic relationship, marked by deep distrust of each other's judgement. Obama was particularly offended by Netanyahu's speech to Congress, which was arranged with Republican leaders behind the president's back.

"It's no secret that the Israeli prime minister and I don't agree about whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution to the Iranian issue," Obama said. "If, in fact, Prime Minister Netanyahu is looking for the most effective way to ensure Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon, this is the best option. And I believe our nuclear experts can confirm that." He emphasized that there was "no daylight" between Washington and Jerusalem on the issue of Israel's security. He said he had directed his national security team to consult closely with Netanyahu on strengthening long-term U.S. security cooperation with Israel. The United States now provides Israel with more than $3 billion annually in military assistance, making the Jewish state the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

The initial Israeli reaction to the accord was not promising for the president. "A deal based on this framework would threaten the survival of Israel," Netanyahu declared, adding that any a final accord "must significantly roll back Iran's nuclear capabilities and stop its terrorism and aggression." Israeli intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz said all options were open for Israel. "If we have no choice, we have no choice...the military option is on the table," he said.

Obama also spoke by phone to Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to soothe his concerns that the framework agreement could mark the beginning of an American rapprochement with Tehran that would reduce Saudi Arabia's strategic importance. In an additional gesture, Obama invited Salman and other Arab leaders to Camp David later this spring to emphasize that a nuclear agreement won't diminish U.S. concerns over Iran's growing influence in the region. Iran backs the Syrian government and controls powerful proxies in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. There was no Saudi comment on the agreement.

GOP Contempt for Kerry

Although the likely Republican presidential candidates remained quiet in the first few hours after the accord was announced, no one was under the delusion that they would remain so. In the preceding weeks they've all signaled their contempt for any deal forged by Secretary of State John Kerry that did not essentially involve the Iranian regime's dismantling itself, ending its strategic ambitions in the region--whether through proxy wars or terrorism--and ending its commitment to liquidating Israel.

The Republican presidential candidates who are in the U.S. Senate--Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul--all signed the letter sent recently to Iran's leader letting him know that any agreement forged with the Obama administration would be easily reversed--a move widely perceived as trying to undermine the talks in Lausanne.

The Democratic contenders for the nomination may not be much better. Hillary Clinton has been supportive of the administration's approach toward Iran, which isn't surprising since it began during her tenure as secretary of state. But as a former senator, she could well end up supporting the effort to have Congress weigh in on the deal, and she's unlikely to cheer the framework until it's been aired more publicly. Those considering a daunting run against Clinton in the Democratic primaries--former Virginia senator Jim Webb, former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont--all could adopt the give-Congress-a-say position that would vex the White House but that may now be inevitable.

If there's one glimmer of a positive for Obama, it's that the end of a second presidential term isn't a bad time to forge arms control agreements, since the president can't run for re-election. The nuclear deal may be part of the 2016 presidential landscape, but Obama himself isn't in the fray, sparing him accusations that he's seeking an accommodation because of politics.

That end-of-the-presidency dynamic helped Ronald Reagan sign a breakthrough agreement on intermediate nuclear weapons in 1987--a year before the election to choose his successor. That agreement paved the way for dramatic arms reductions under George H.W. Bush in 1991.

But unlike Reagan when he approached the end of his presidency, Obama faces an adversary that keeps making his life worse. In Reagan's time, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev oversaw the dismantling of the communist system as he telegraphed his interest in a peaceful era with the West. By contrast, Iran's rhetoric remains belligerent as it widens its influence among Shia factions in the region. Reagan was a trusted hawk; Obama doesn't enjoys the same cred.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Reagan and Obama may be their goals. After Reagan's quixotic bid to eliminate all nuclear weapons from Soviet arsenals failed at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986, the U.S. held no illusions that each side would retain anything less than thousands of weapons of mass destruction. In the case of Iran, the U.S. and its allies insist that Iran not only can't produce a single nuclear weapon, but that the so-called breakout time Tehran would need to construct a device also must be at least one year. Given the rigorous inspection regime envisioned in the framework accord, that's not an impossible goal, but in some ways it's far more daunting than the one that Reagan faced: Reagan sought to shrink the haystack. Obama must convince Congress and his Middle East partners that he can keep an eye on any needles.