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Obama Faces Fight In U.S. Congress Over Iran Deal

  • RFE/RL

U.S. President Barack Obama could be in for a rough ride trying to persuade skeptical Congressmen to approve the implementation of a nuclear deal with Iran. (file photo)

U.S. President Barack Obama could be in for a rough ride trying to persuade skeptical Congressmen to approve the implementation of a nuclear deal with Iran. (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- With a landmark deal to curb Iran's nuclear program reached between Tehran and world powers, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration now faces potential hurdles in the U.S. Congress, where lawmakers offered reactions to the deal ranging from wariness to outrage.

Congress will now have 60 days to review the agreement, which would provide sanctions relief to Iran and was hammered out over more than a decade of negotiations and a grueling, 18-day final push in Vienna.

Obama says the deal will "prevent" Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, though critics in Congress warn that it will only slow Iran’s nuclear development and embolden the Islamic republic to support terrorism and further destabilize the Middle East.

While Obama is expected to retain enough congressional support to move forward with implementing the agreement, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers voiced concerns that Iran would still be capable of acquiring a nuclear-weapon capability under the terms of the deal.

A key sticking point for some U.S. lawmakers is a provision in the deal under which Tehran would mothball most of its centrifuges used to enrich uranium, which can be used for nuclear energy or weapons, for the next 10 years.

After that period, critics say, Iran will be allowed to ratchet up its nuclear activity, thus potentially leading to a nuclear arms race in a region that is already a tinderbox.

"This agreement allows Iran to retain a vast enrichment capacity, to continue its research and development, and gain an industrialized nuclear program once key provisions of this agreement begin to expire in as little as 10 years," U.S. Representative Ed Royce (Republican-California) told a July 14 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which he chairs.

"The key restriction, the ability to enrich [uranium] at high levels, begins to expire in as little as 10 years," Royce added. "That's 10 years. Most Americans will take three times longer to pay off their mortgage."

Representative Ted Yoho (Republican-Florida) said of the deal: "It's like giving an alligator more teeth and thinking now they may be nice to you."

Veto Power

Obama bowed to pressure by lawmakers in May by giving Congress the right to review the Iran deal and possibly derail an agreement by passing a disapproval resolution that would remove the U.S. president's right to waive sanctions passed by Congress.

But Obama vowed on July 14 to veto any legislation that would prevent the deal's implementation.

A simple majority in the Republican-led Congress would be insufficient to override Obama's veto. This would require the support of a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate -- a formidable hurdle for opponents of the deal.

Even if Congressional Republicans were to vote unanimously for a disapproval resolution, at least 43 Democrats in the House and 13 in the Senate would have to join them to trump Obama's veto power.

Prominent Democratic lawmakers, however, expressed skepticism about the deal as well.

"I'm concerned the red lines we drew have turned into green-lights; that Iran will be required only to limit rather than eliminate its nuclear program, while the international community will be required to lift the sanctions," Senator Bob Menendez (Democrat-New Jersey), the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

"The bottom line is: The deal doesn't end Iran's nuclear program -- it preserves it," Menendez added, saying that he looks forward "to thoroughly analyzing the details" of the accord.

Representative Steve Israel (Democrat-New York), the highest-ranking Jewish Democrat in the House, said he "was skeptical at the beginning of this process, and I remain skeptical of the Iranians."

"In the fall, there will be a vote on this deal, and my obligation is to review every word, sentence and paragraph of the deal to ensure it satisfies my continued concerns," Israel said.

‘Foreign Policy Legacy’

Obama already began moving to shore up lawmakers' support for a possible deal last week at a White House reception held for Senate Democrats, The New York Times reported.

"My foreign policy legacy in this area will be judged on whether or not the deal works, not just over the next 18 months but over many years," Senator Chris Coons (Democrat-Delaware) said Obama told the Senators at the meeting, the Times reported. "If I put together a deal that fails to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, that would be part of my legacy as well."

The top Democrat in the House, Representative Nancy Pelosi, delivered a strong show of support for Obama following the announcement of the deal hammered out between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of world powers: Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States, plus Germany.

"The historic nuclear agreement announced today is the product of years of tough, bold and clear-eyed leadership from President Obama. I commend the president for his strength throughout the historic negotiations that have led to this point," Pelosi said in a July 14 statement.

Pelosi, who was among more than 150 Democratic members of Congress to sign a letter in May backing the nuclear negotiations with Iran, added that "all options remain on the table should Iran take any steps toward a nuclear weapon or deviate from the terms of this agreement."

With reporting by Reuters, The New York Times, AP, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian