As the chances of a final deal between Iran and the P5+1 shrink, another conflict between President Obama and Congress looms. The Los Angeles Times reports: “Skeptics in Congress, who include senior members of both parties, have long been warning that if a deal wasn’t concluded this year they would seek to impose further sanctions on Iran. Other lawmakers are preparing legislation that would give Congress more leverage to block a deal it doesn’t like or to take away the money needed to implement an agreement.” No kidding.


Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), left, talks with ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) on Capitol Hill in Washington in July during a hearing on the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Yesterday, 41 Republican senators signed onto a letter to the president drafted by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) expressing alarm about “recent developments in your administration’s policy toward Iran, including reports that your administration plans to circumvent Congress and unilaterally provide significant sanctions relief under a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.” The letter continued, “Reported plans to circumvent Congress suggest that your negotiators may be concluding a weak and dangerous deal which will prove unacceptable to the American people.”

The letter went on to excoriate the president’s lack of regard for the Senate: “Your negotiators appear to have disregarded clear expressions from the Senate emphasizing the need for a multi-decade agreement requiring Iran to fully suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities, to dismantle its illicit nuclear infrastructure, and completely disclose its past work on nuclear weaponization. We see no indication your negotiators are pressing Iran to abandon efforts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach American soil. Iran’s refusal to seriously address these issues raises fundamental questions about the sincerity of its participation in this process.”

The senators also implored Obama to work with the Senate and warned that sanctions would be forthcoming if the president continued either to kick the can down the road with another extension or entered into a rotten deal that legitimized Iran’s nuclear program. (“The Senate enjoys a broad consensus for continuing to increase the pressure on Iran, as evidenced by the bipartisan support for the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 (S. 1881). We will continue to seek to impose additional pressure on Iran in the months ahead unless Tehran abandons its nuclear ambitions and pursues a genuinely constructive path in its relations with the world.”)

Interestingly, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who just survived a nail-biter reelection race, issued his own statement saying that he would join those demanding an agreement that achieves “the dismantling—not freezing—of Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program,” intrusive inspections; measured sanctions relief to gauge compliance and “Congressional review of any agreement to assure legitimacy and longevity of the decision.” He stressed that “diplomacy cannot be used as a cover for the continuation of the research, development and manufacture of secret weapons of mass destruction.”

With a new Senate, the pro-sanctions, tough-on-Iran group will grow. In addition to the 43 Republicans on the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill and on the recent letter, seven of the 12 new senators (assuming that the Republican prevails in Louisiana) voted for the House version of the sanctions measure — Bill Cassidy (La.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.), Steve Daines (S.D.), James Lankford (Okla.) and even Gary Peters (D-Mich.). The remaining five Republicans — Thom Tillis (N.C.), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Mike Rounds (S.D.), Joni Ernst (Iowa) and David Perdue (Ga.) — all ran against Obama’s weak Iran policy and/or specifically criticized the interim agreement as too weak. Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), neither one of whom signed onto the original sanctions bill or the Rubio-Kirk letter, would be the only two of 55 GOP senators outside this broad consensus, unless they come around to the views of their colleagues. (Paul also would be alone in this respect among the 2016 presidential aspirants unless he does an about-face. His office did not reply to a request for explanation.)

Most important, of course, once the new Senate arrives, there will be no Majority Leader Harry Reid there to quash sanctions votes. That should free up a number of Democrats to join Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in sanctions legislation or legislation demanding that the Senate approve any new deal. When the original sanctions bill was collecting signatures, Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Ben Cardin (Md.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Michael Bennet (Colo.), Chris Coons (Del.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Robert Casey (Pa.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) joined co-sponsors in addition to Menendez and Warner. (Other Democrats who signed on lost in the midterms.)

That would bring the vote total up to at least 65 (53 Republicans and the 12 Democrats identified above), with several other Democrats no longer beholden to Reid and Obama and perhaps willing to jump ship. In other words, there are surely enough votes to survive a filibuster and very well a veto (the House got 400 votes for sanctions) to pass legislation reaffirming the U.S. requirements for an acceptable deal, ensuring that Congress will vote on a final deal and increasing sanctions. The president, I suppose, could once again claim some authority to act unilaterally and in direct contravention of Congress, but right about then the hue and cry over executive imperialism and Obama’s disastrous foreign policy could reach a fever pitch.

One person whose views are a mystery, of course, is Hillary Clinton. Would she back the White House on another delay or give a thumbs-up to a rotten deal — or would she or stick with mainstream Democrats in Congress? Is she really any different from Obama when it comes to national security (her State Department repeatedly foot-dragged on sanctions, and she cheered the interim deal)? That the public does not know what she would do and cannot predict which way she will float — at least not until she can test the winds and run some polls — personifies the total lack of clarity and courage we have come to expect of her.