Iran Deal Puts Spotlight on Senate Presidential Hopefuls

Iran Deal Puts Spotlight on Senate Presidential Hopefuls
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As the Obama administration and most Democrats celebrated a nuclear deal with Iran as a historic achievement, Republicans running for president uniformly denounced it as a historic failure.

The swift opposition was expected; it’s become something of a rallying cry on the campaign trail as part of slamming the administration’s foreign policy and, by virtue, Hillary Clinton’s, as weak and caving. But the formalized terms place a spotlight on the presidential pool’s contenders from the U.S. Senate, particularly Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, whose hopes of standing apart from a crowded field rest in part on their foreign policy bona fides.

The freshmen senators both sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, which will take the first crack at the Iran deal, and have publicly sparred over their differences in this arena, most notably over the administration’s thawing of relations with Cuba. Paul, the libertarian from Kentucky, has focused more on domestic policy issues like government surveillance and privacy, but has also mostly maintained a more anti-interventionist view. Rubio, from Florida, has taken an approach to foreign policy that has been among the most hawkish in the GOP field.

In a sign of how politically untenable support for this particular deal is in this Republican primary, the two senators came out on the same side on this issue.

“It will be very hard for the GOP candidates to support this deal and still argue they are tough on national security,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “It is not simply that Hillary Clinton’s resume is foreign policy heavy -- it is the fact that this president will bequeath a world in such disorder that any pretense of comfort with the world Barack Obama built will be viewed by voters as an abdication of leadership.”

While Paul has said he would be open to diplomacy with Iran regarding its nuclear capabilities instead of waging war, he ultimately opposed the deal that will come soon before Congress for review. But he was not as quick with a response as his rivals‪. 

In a statement, Paul argued that sanctions would expire before evidence of compliance and that it still leaves Iran with significant nuclear capability. Additionally, Paul said, the agreement will lift an arms embargo with Iran (the administration argues that the ban will remain for the next five years).

“While I continue to believe that negotiations are preferable to war, I would prefer to keep the interim agreement in place instead of accepting a bad deal,” Paul said, noting he would vote against it.

For Rubio, who has staunchly opposed an agreement with Iran from the start, the deal presents an opportunity to further elevate rhetoric he has embraced on the campaign trail for months.

In March, Rubio was among 47 Republican senators, along with Paul, who signed an open letter to Iranian leaders noting that “the next president could revoke ... an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen.” That same month, during a political event in New Hampshire, Rubio suggested that the proliferation of Iranian weapons might even warrant military intervention by the U.S. 

“We may have to decide at some point what is worse: a military strike against Iran or a nuclear-armed Iran,” Rubio said, according to a Politico report at the time. “I am not cheerleading for war. I don’t want there to be the need to use military force, but a nuclear Iran is an unacceptable risk for the region and the world.”

On Tuesday, Rubio indicated in a statement that he would undo the agreement with Iran if he were elected president.

“It will then be left to the next president to return us to a position of American strength and re-impose sanctions on this despicable regime until it is truly willing to abandon its nuclear ambitions and is no longer a threat to international security,” Rubio said.‪ 

And, almost immediately, Rubio’s political network sprang into action to capitalize on the deal. An ad released Tuesday by a nonprofit group supporting Rubio for president said he “is leading the fight” in the Senate against the deal with Iran, and pressed people to urge their senators to ”join Marco Rubio and defeat Obama’s deal with Iran. 

In large field of candidates, a rivalry has emerged between executive-minded governors and legislatively experienced senators. The difference becomes especially relevant, the senators argue, when it comes to foreign policy, as congressional lawmakers have more intimate knowledge and experience with classified information and international affairs. 

While the GOP field is largely united around foreign policy — with Rand Paul as an outlier — the nuances lie in style and past experiences.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has also made his foreign affairs experience a centerpiece of his campaign. He came out in perhaps the starkest of terms against the Iran deal in various cable news interviews on Tuesday, calling it “the most dangerous and irresponsible step I’ve ever seen” and one that would ensure that Iran becomes “a nuclear nation.” Graham said he fears “that we’ve set in motion a decade of chaos.”‪ 

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also vehemently condemned the deal that he argued “legitimized” Iran’s nuclear program, taking special objection to the fact that the negotiations did not bring about the release of three American captives held in Iran.

“We owe it to our fellow Americans to elevate, not ignore, their plight, to demand their swift and unconditional release by the implacably hostile regime that holds them,” Cruz said in a statement.

Relative to the former and sitting governors running for president, Republican senators will be able to more directly affect the party’s path forward on this issue from their perch on Capitol Hill. That might lend some advantages, but also adds the responsibility of potentially presenting some legislative alternative to the agreement with Iran. 

“Your Iran policy can’t just be issuing the most hyperbolic press release,” said Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for the president on national security. “If you disagree, you need to propose a viable alternative that can unite the international community the way Obama has and actually move us closer to preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

Vietor added, “I haven’t heard any of these guys articulate a viable alternative.”

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator challenging Hillary Clinton for the nomination, called the deal “a victory for diplomacy over saber-rattling.” He said it “could keep the United States from being drawn into another never-ending war in the Middle East.”

Sanders crossed paths with Clinton on Tuesday as she spent the day on Capitol Hill meeting with Democrats, with a special focus on Iran. For her part, Clinton, who worked to bring the negotiations about as secretary of state, called the agreement “an important step in putting the lid on Iran’s nuclear program.” Clinton, who will play a key role in persuading lawmakers to support the agreement, also said the deal will enable the United States in further negotiations over Iran’s other “bad actions,” including the detainment of American citizens, threats to Israel, and state-sponsored terrorism.‪ 

Lawmakers have 60 days to review the agreement before voting on it. With Republicans opposed and a handful of Democrats with constituent ties to Israeli interests skeptical of the accord, the president will have to work to win over his party and get enough support to sustain a veto if need be.

President Obama will make a public address on Wednesday about the Iran deal, while Vice President Joe Biden will go to Capitol Hill to discuss the agreement with Democratic lawmakers. Administration officials warned that stepping away from the accord would only unravel the sanctions placed on Iran: “A vote to kill this deal could potentially be a vote to kill the sanctions regime.”

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