Iran deal finds few fans in Congress

WASHINGTON—Members of both parties on Tuesday blasted preliminary details of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States, Great Britain, China, Russia, Germany, and France.

The deal—details of which still aren’t fully available—culminated two years of negotiations initially aimed at dismantling Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for nuclear-related sanctions relief. The available information suggests the accord only curbs Iran’s nuclear aspirations, delaying them for a short time while providing immediate relief of a wide range of sanctions.

“I’m concerned the red lines we drew have turned into green lights,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The deal doesn’t end Iran’s nuclear program—it preserves it.”

The agreement allows Iran to access $100 billion in frozen overseas assets, ends the European oil embargo, eases restrictions on Iranian banks, and sunsets the United Nations embargo on conventional arms purchases. In exchange, Iran pledged not to produce enough material to develop a nuclear bomb for 10 years. Its nuclear infrastructure will remain in place.

“This is precisely the outcome that for years we in Congress fought to prevent,” former Democratic senator and vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday. “This is a bad deal for America, a bad deal for Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East, and a bad deal for the world.”

Lieberman called the lack of tough inspections requirements the biggest disappointment in the pact. Although Iran did agree to inspections, including at military sites, it will have advance notice and can challenge inspections through a “bureaucratic process” that could delay them for up to 21 days. Former CIA director Michael Hayden noted “Iranians have been stiffing” international inspectors for years.

“We’re taking this trade where we end sanctions in exchange for them doing what they’ve said they would do for the last three decades,” said Lieberman, who now works at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “Iran won, hands down.”

Republicans on the committee universally assailed the deal, and even the most optimistic Democrats stopped short of endorsing the plan. Several Democrats urged a complete review of the agreement and cited the positive potential outcomes of delaying Iran’s nuclear program. Witnesses at the committee hearing said there is little evidence to suggest positive outcomes are likely.

“This deal is ultimately not built on trust but on hope,” said Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

The administration did find support in some corners: Some academics, arms control groups, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops publicly backed the deal. Former Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor who served in the Clinton and Bush administrations, told lawmakers he would support the deal “because I believe it’s the best alternative.”

With a nuke deal accomplished, Burns said he hopes the administration will turn its attention to building a coalition that can stop Iran’s meddling in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. Numerous lawmakers expressed concern that, even if the nuclear agreement goes according to plan, lifting sanctions will create further unrest in the Middle East, including a possible arms race.

Members of both parties also expressed frustration that the administration chose not to secure the release of three American citizens wrongfully held in Iran. Last month the House unanimously called on Iran to release former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, and Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, and provide information on the whereabouts of former CIA officer Robert Levinson.

Congress has 60 days to vote on the nuclear deal before President Barack Obama can lift sanctions. Congress will most likely vote against the accord, but it may not have the votes (two-thirds majorities in both chambers) to overcome a presidential veto.

“The deal they have struck is looking like a tough sell,” said Republican Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who noted even Fordow, Iran’s heavily fortified underground nuclear facility, will remain open. “Iran won’t even have to cheat on this agreement to be a small step away from the bomb, dominate the region, and boost its oppressive regime at home.”

If Congress fails to mount a veto-proof majority, Obama is expected to use an executive order to remove the sanctions. A future president could reverse that action, but Iran would have already benefited from an influx of billions in cash.

— by J.C. Derrick | WNS

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