Significant majorities in the House and Senate do not trust the president when it comes to Iran. That is the major take away from two letters, one signed by 83 senators and one by 395 House members. The House letter goes into greater detail on verification of any deal while the Senate is more specific about the requirements needed to disable Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program. The gist of the letters, however, is the same: Congress will in essence need to approve any final deal because legislative action is needed to lift sanctions; a final deal must disable Iran’s capacity to build a nuclear weapon; and stringent verification must be agreed to.
The House letter adds: “Finally, although the P5+1 process is focused on Iran’s nuclear program, we remain deeply concerned by Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, its horrendous human rights record, its efforts to destabilize its neighbors, its pursuit of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and its threats against our ally, Israel, as well as the fates of American citizens detained by Iran. We want to work with you to address these concerns as part of a broader strategy of dealing with Iran.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) chose to write his own statement, telling the president: “Recent press reports indicate that as nuclear negotiations resume in Vienna, Iranian oil exports may be on-track to exceed the terms of the interim deal and other nations are beginning to explore longer-term economic relationships with Iran. These developments undermine the international consensus to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. While I support the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Congress should consider clear consequences for Iran should they violate the Joint Plan of Action and move to ensure the president cannot grant sanctions relief as part of any final deal without congressional approval.”
The House and Senate letters are the lowest common denominator that allow all but the most partisan Democrats room to go on record for a strong pro-sanctions policy. As such they do not mention use of force, and they do not take the place of legislation. They nevertheless are as close as Congress ever comes to consensus on a significant issue: Congress won’t lift sanctions for a phony deal and/or while Iran stalls for time.
There are several takeaways from all of this.
First, the letters and their timing suggest a fundamental lack of faith in the administration to put pressure on Iran sufficient to give up its nuclear ambitions. Members fear the White House will strike a half-hearted deal that merely provides cover for Iran to continue its nuclear weapons program, just as we did with regard to North Korea. Corker’s statement highlights the extreme discomfort with the interim deal that is already destroying the international consensus on sanctions.
In the statement by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) accompanying the House letter, we see an unmistakable vote of no confidence in the president: “Many members, including myself, have strong reservations about the conduct of nuclear diplomacy to this point, and are concerned about the lack of a broader strategy to confront Iran’s growing threats to regional stability. For negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to be successful, they must be rooted in such a broader strategy. As this letter makes clear, we ignore the nature of the regime in Tehran, and its many threats to international peace and security, at our own peril.” The disastrous turn of events in Ukraine suggests the president’s “trust me” plea will fall on deaf ears when it comes to Iran, where skepticism was already rampant on Capitol Hill.
Second, this is not, as the White House and its spinners would like to claim, a partisan matter. In the Senate, 41 of the 83 signatories were Democrats. The White House, having jammed up sanctions, now faces a bipartisan revolt if it does not reach a deal in July or if it reaches a deal that does not accomplish the aims Congress has set out. Moreover, once negotiations have hit a dead end, Congress will begin calls for a more credible threat of military force and an affirmation of support for Israel, should it be forced to act.
Third, if one ever needed evidence that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is the odd man out on foreign policy in his party and in the country at large, this is it. He did not sign the Senate letter nor did he sign onto the most recent sanctions legislation; he’s made clear previously he wants to give Obama room to negotiate. That is Hillary Clinton’s position, as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s. It is not “Reaganesque” any more than is his interest in a containment strategy. Reagan’s Cold War philosophy was: “We win, they lose.” Rand Paul’s philosophy seems to be: Obama’s got it handled. That puts him in sync with not a single 2016 GOP contender. On the most important national security issue of our time, he’s got it exactly wrong on the president and the mullahs.
As we noted, the debacle in Ukraine is not likely to increase confidence in the president’s stewardship of foreign policy. More important, it will be seen by Iran, Russia and Syria as one more bit of evidence that the president can be pushed around and/or lured into deals that sacrifice American interests. Congressional letters are a poor substitute for a credible commander in chief. Nevertheless, at this point these letters and the Israeli army are the main impediments to a nuclear-capable Iran.