White House Issues Saturday Night Iran Deal Warning To Senate

Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, center, walks up a stairwell while speaking to members of the media at the Capitol Visitors Center after attending a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. Photographer: Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg via Getty Images


In an effort to reassert control over the domestic political debate surrounding sensitive negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, the White House penned a letter Saturday night warning senators to hold back on legislation that would detract from the president’s ability to affect and approve a final agreement with Iran.

The letter, written by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), reiterates a veto threat of the bill, while insisting that Congress will have a say in reviewing and affecting the ultimate outcome. But in far more detailed and foreboding terms than normal, McDonough lays out the administration’s concerns should Corker’s Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 end up becoming law.

The bill, he writes, would “likely have a profoundly negative impact on the ongoing negotiations — emboldening Iranian hard-liners, inviting a counter-productive response from the Iranian majiles; differentiating the U.S. position from our allies in negotiations; and once again calling into question our ability to negotiate this deal.”

“Put simply,” adds McDonough, “it would potentially make it impossible to secure international cooperation for additional sanctions, while putting at risk the existing multilateral sanctions regime.”

Coming just days before the March 24 deadline for a political framework for the final nuclear agreement, the Saturday night letter — three pages, single spaced, in length — is the latest indication of rising tensions between the White House and the Hill. At times assertive and, at others, combative, the letter warns Corker that his bill, which would give Congress the right to vote up or down on the final nuclear agreement, would cripple U.S. negotiators and lead Iran and international negotiating partners to question the U.S.’ ability to follow through on its end of the bargain.

It comes after months of Congress trying to insert itself into the negotiations between Iran, the U.S. and five partner countries. While the White House maintains it is nearing an agreement that will ensure Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, lawmakers have insisted that President Barack Obama is prepared to sign a “bad deal” that will leave too much of Iran’s nuclear facilities intact, allowing it to covertly develop a nuclear weapon. These concerns have been echoed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, against the wishes of the White House, delivered a contentious speech on the House floor, warning that the current deal will “all but guarantee” Iran nuclear weapons.

Matters came to a climactic point this past week, when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) drafted a letter, signed by 46 other Republican senators, to Iranian leadership. The letter warned that any agreement could easily be reworked by Congress, or even overturned by a future president. The White House and Democratic lawmakersslammed the letter as a blatant attempt to undermine negotiations and the credibility of the White House.

Notably absent from the signatories was Corker, who had been trying to recruit Democratic senators to build a veto-proof majority for his bill. Cotton’s letter appears to have complicated those efforts. McDonough’s letter — from a wildly different philosophical vantage point — is designed to shelve it entirely.

“The Administration’s request to the Congress is simple: let us complete the negotiations before the Congress acts on legislation,” writes McDonough. “We understand that Congress will make its own determinations about how to respond, but we do not believe that the country’s interests are served by congressional attempts to weigh in prematurely on this sensitive and consequential ongoing international negotiation aimed at achieving a goal that we all share: using diplomacy to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

At the heart of the administration’s concern with Corker’s legislation are two separate issues. The first is the overarching message that the final vote of “approval” on the deal is within the purview of Congress. McDonough, in his letter, concedes a Republican concern: that the United Nations will have a role in implementing a final agreement. But that, he notes, is because the U.N. is the only entity with the authority to terminate the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions on Iran.

McDonough also assures Corker that the Senate will play a role — “and will have to take a vote” — in any final agreement. But that vote, he says, should come further down the line. There is ample precedent for a non-legally binding international treaty premised on political commitments, McDonough argues. And much of his letter is spent listing prior cases, the most recent being the U.S.-Russia framework to remove chemical weapons from Syria.

The second concern in the letter is that Corker’s bill eliminates one of the primary tools at the president’s disposal to make sure that any Iran deal is successful. Under current law, only Congress can eliminate the statutory sanctions regime against Iran. The president, however, has the power to suspend them through waivers. Corker’s bill would complicate that, prompting administration concerns that they’d lose a critical tool to make the final framework work.

“The deal we are negotiating will allow us to retain significant leverage, as Iran would face severe consequences for any violation since we would have the capacity to swiftly re-impose punishing sanctions if Iran does not meet its commitments,” writes McDonough.





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