Kansas City Star, BY DEB RIECHMANN, April 1, 2015:
A bill calling for Congress to have a say on an emerging nuclear agreement with Iran has turned into a tug of war on Capitol Hill, with Republicans trying to raise the bar so high that a final deal might be impossible and Democrats aiming to give the White House more room to negotiate with Tehran.
Senators of both parties are considering more than 50 amendments to a bill introduced by Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J. The bill would restrict Obama’s ability to ease sanctions against Iran without congressional approval.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday is to debate the amendments and vote on the bill, which has pitted the White House against the GOP-led Congress on a critical foreign policy issue that President Barack Obama wants etched in his legacy. Obama administration officials, who are expected to continue lobbying lawmakers next week, don’t want Congress to take any action before a final deal could be reached by the end of June.
There is strong support, however, from lawmakers of both parties who think they should be able to weigh in on any agreement aimed at preventing Iran from being able to develop nuclear weapons. Iran says its program is for civilian purposes, but the U.S. and its partners negotiating with Tehran suspect Iran is keen to become a nuclear-armed powerhouse in the Middle East, where it already holds much sway.
There have been intense negotiations on Capitol Hill for the past several days about ways to amend the bill. Advocacy groups and congressional staffers provided details about amendments, which still might be withdrawn or rewritten.
Under the bill as it is currently written, Obama could unilaterally lift or ease any sanctions that were imposed on Iran through presidential action. But the bill would prohibit him for 60 days from suspending, waiving or otherwise easing any sanctions Congress levied on Iran. During that 60-day period, Congress could hold hearings and approve, disapprove or take no action on any final nuclear agreement with Iran.
If Congress passed a joint resolution approving a final deal — or took no action — Obama could move ahead to ease sanctions levied by Congress. But if Congress passed a joint resolution disapproving it, Obama would be blocked from providing Iran with any relief from congressional sanctions.
In an effort to give the president more negotiating room, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the new ranking Democrat on the foreign relations committee, and a few of his Democratic colleagues have proposed letting Obama waive congressionally imposed sanctions if not doing so would cause the U.S. to be in violation of a final agreement.
Several Democratic senators also have proposed shortening the congressional review period to 30 days or even 10 days that Congress is in session. Democrats also want to strike a part of the bill that requires the Obama administration to certify that Iran has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or an American anywhere in the world.
On the Republican side, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a likely presidential candidate, has proposed an amendment that would require the Obama administration to certify that Iran’s leaders have publicly accepted Israel’s right to exist. That’s a tall order. Iran has threatened to destroy Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned the U.S. about making a deal with Iranian leaders, whom he distrusts.
Dylan Williams, a lobbyist for the liberal Jewish group J Street, argues that Rubio’s proposed amendment puts Republicans in a “lose-lose” position. Adopting the amendment would kill the Corker bill, Williams said, because many senators would vote against a provision they know the Iranians would never accept. Defeating the amendment, he said, would be seen as a slap at Netanyahu, whom GOP leaders have strongly supported on the Iran nuclear matter.
Republican senators also are contemplating amendments that would require that any final agreement be a treaty. That’s also a high hurdle because treaties must be approved by two-thirds of the Senate.
Before any sanctions are eased, one of four amendments drafted by Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming would require the president to certify that any funds Iran received as a result of sanction relief would not facilitate Iran’s ability to support terrorists or build nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. He says he will formally introduce the amendments only if Democrats try to weaken the bill, which he supports.
And Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has filed amendments to the bill to require Congress to address the issue of compensation for 52 Americans held hostage in Iran from November 1979 to January 1981 before any deal is finalized, any sanctions are eased or diplomatic relations with Iran are normalized.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a recent meeting of the inner cabinet that if a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the six world powers is indeed signed by the June 30 deadline, the greatest concern is that Tehran will fully implement it without violations, two senior Israeli officials said.
The meeting of the inner cabinet was called on short notice on April 3, a few hours before the Passover seder. The evening before, Iran and the six powers had announced at Lausanne, Switzerland that they had reached a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and that negotiations over a comprehensive agreement would continue until June 30.
The inner cabinet meeting was called after a harsh phone call between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama over the agreement with Tehran.
The two senior Israeli officials, who are familiar with the details of the meeting but asked to remain anonymous, said a good deal of the three-hour meeting was spent on ministers “letting off steam” over the nuclear deal and the way that the U.S. conducted itself in the negotiations with Iran.
According to the two senior officials, Netanyahu said during the meeting that he feared that the “Iranians will keep to every letter in the agreement if indeed one is signed at the end of June.”
One official said: “Netanyahu said at the meeting that it would be impossible to catch the Iranians cheating simply because they will not break the agreement.”
Netanyahu also told the ministers that in 10 to 15 years, when the main clauses of the agreement expire, most of the sanctions will be lifted and the Iranians will show that they met all their obligations. They will then receive a “kashrut certificate” from the international community, which will see Iran as a “normal” country from which there is nothing to fear.
Under such circumstances, the prime minister said, it will be very difficult if not impossible to persuade the world powers to keep up their monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, not to mention imposing new sanctions if concerns arise that Iran has gone back to developing a secret nuclear program for military purposes.
It was decided during the inner cabinet meeting to try to persuade the Obama administration to improve the agreement. However, Netanyahu and most of the ministers agreed that the only way to stop the agreement, even if it was unlikely to succeed, was through Congress. Thus, a good deal of Israeli efforts will focus on convincing members of Congress to vote for the Iran Nuclear Review Act, proposed by the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker, that could delay implementation of a deal if one is reached.
Corker’s bill calls for a 60-day delay in implementing any signed nuclear deal, during which time Congress would scrutinize all the agreement’s details. The bill requires senior administration officials to provide Congress with detailed reports on the deal as well as attend Congressional hearings on the subject. Corker’s bill also states that American sanctions that were imposed by law would only be lifted if within the 60 days allotted for scrutiny of the agreement, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs declared their support for the pact.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is to meet Tuesday for its first vote on the Corker bill, after which it will be voted on by the entire Senate. The White House is opposed to the bill and is threatening to veto it. At this point, in addition to all 54 Republican senators, nine Democratic senators have also expressed their support for the bill, leaving it four Democratic senators short, so far, of the 67-vote majority that would make the bill veto-proof.
The pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC, which coordinates the activities of the Israeli Embassy in Washington with the prime minister’s bureau in Jerusalem, has begun over the past few days to exert pressure on Democratic senators – both publicly and privately – to get them to vote for the Corker bill.
AIPAC also claimed over the weekend on its official Twitter account that the framework of the current agreement would make it possible for Iran to become a threshold nuclear state within 15 years and therefore pressure should be brought to bear on Congress to vote for the Corker bill.
Netanyahu and Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, want to see changes inserted in the bill that will make it more binding, and even turn it into one that prevents an agreement with Tehran rather than delaying it.
One change Netanyahu is seeking is a new clause that the deal with Iran be considered a treaty; an international treaty signed by the United States must be approved by a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
The Republican senator from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, reportedly intends to demand at Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that this clause be added to the bill.
Meanwhile, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, considered one of the Republican Party’s potential candidates for the 2016 presidential campaign, wants to see an amendment to the bill adopting Netanyahu’s demand that Iranian recognition of Israel’s right to exist be part of any comprehensive agreement signed at the end of June.
However, if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee votes in favor of one or both of these amendments in its meeting Tuesday, it could lead Democratic senators, who had already agreed to support the original deal with Iran, to change their minds.