Obama to Congress: Don't Kill Nuclear Deal With Iran
President Obama announced initial parameters for a possible nuclear deal with Iran Thursday, saying the U.S. and its allies have reached a “historic understanding” with Iranian leaders that is intended to prevent the country from obtaining nuclear weapons.
He also sent a direct message to Congress: Don’t kill this deal.
The agreement was announced after a marathon negotiating session in Switzerland between the P5+1 countries -- the U.S., Russia, China, France, the U.K. and Germany -- and Iran. Reading a joint statement there Thursday, European Union representative Federica Mogherini and Iranian negotiator Javid Zarif announced that the countries had come to an agreement on a framework for a deal.
The parameters are not a final agreement, however, and negotiations toward a signed deal will continue through June. In his address outside the White House, Obama stressed the importance of these negotiations, saying that an eventual agreement would be far superior to the alternatives of increased economic sanctions or another war in the Middle East.
“As president and commander in chief, I have no greater responsibility than the security of the American people, and I am convinced that if this framework leads to a final, comprehensive deal, it will make our country, our allies, and our world safer,” Obama said shortly after the announcement in Lausanne. “This has been a long time coming.”
Congressional Republicans have been vocal in their skepticism of the months-long process. Many GOP leaders have repeatedly suggested that the Obama administration is negotiating a bad deal with Iran, and urged the president and Secretary of State John Kerry to walk away.
Senators on both sides of the aisle have also been firm in their belief that Congress should ultimately approve or disapprove any pact that is reached. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, proposed legislation that would give the chamber the option to hold an up-or-down vote on a final deal within 60 days.
In a statement Thursday, Corker said he still plans to take up the legislation in his committee in mid-April, after Congress returns from its spring recess. The bill currently has eight Democratic co-sponsors.
“We must remain clear-eyed regarding Iran’s continued resistance to concessions, long history of covert nuclear weapons-related activities, support of terrorism, and its current role in destabilizing the region,” the Tennessee Republican said.
In his statement, Obama said negotiators would brief Congress on the details of the preliminary agreement and said he welcomed a “robust debate” in the coming months. He said he would speak with congressional leaders Thursday and emphasized, “The issues at stake here are bigger than politics. These are matters of war and peace.”
But he also issued a direct warning to lawmakers who have been critical or skeptical of the negotiations: Don’t do anything to jeopardize the talks.
“If Congress kills this deal not based on expert analysis, and without offering any reasonable alternative, then it's the United States that will be blamed for the failure of diplomacy,” Obama said. “International unity will collapse, and the path to conflict will widen.”
Despite that warning, it appeared that a number of Democrats still support Republicans’ plans to advance the bill requiring congressional oversight of the deal. Sen. Bob Menendez -- who was the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee until he temporarily stepped aside following his indictment on corruption charges -- said in a statement that close scrutiny of the negotiations would include Corker’s legislation.
“If diplomats can negotiate for two years on this issue, then certainly Congress is entitled to a review period of an agreement that will fundamentally alter our relationship with Iran and the sanctions imposed by Congress,” Menendez said.
The parameters of the agreement released by the White House include that Iran would reduce its centrifuges from around 19,000 to around 6,000; that it would not build future facilities for enriching uranium for 15 years; that the “breakout time” it would take for Iran to rapidly acquire material for a nuclear weapon would be increased to one year; and that inspectors would have regular access to all Iranian nuclear facilities. Once those and other parameters are met, Iran would be relieved of the economic sanctions the world community has placed against it.
In his White House comments, Obama emphasized the role of the inspectors, calling it “unprecedented” and saying they would have access to the entire supply chain for Iran’s nuclear program.
“If Iran cheats, the world will know it,” he stressed. “If we see something suspicious, we will inspect it.”
Such declarations did not sway opponents. House Speaker John Boehner, who is visiting the Middle East this week while Congress is out of session, said in a statement that the parameters “represent an alarming departure from the White House’s initial goals.”
Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, who several weeks ago penned a controversial open letter to Iranian leaders insisting that Congress had the right to review and reject any agreement, was highly critical of the president’s announcement.
“There is no nuclear deal or framework with Iran; there is only a list of dangerous U.S. concessions that will put Iran on the path to nuclear weapons,” he said in a statement.
Not all reaction was negative, though. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy said he welcomed the initial framework and echoed Obama’s insistence that negotiations are the best way to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.
“Those who are critical of today’s framework have the responsibility to present a serious, credible alternative that would get us to our ultimate goal: achieving a nuclear-free Iran in a way that doesn’t require another war in the Middle East,” Murphy said in a statement.