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On July 23, 2015, the Obama administration began earnestly to make its case for the deal that the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, France and China plus Germany (5+1) – had signed with Iran in Vienna, Austria the week before.
The accord, which has been dubbed the “Iran-nuke deal”, severely limits Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international economic sanctions that have choked the country for decades.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who pushed for the deal over 20 months of gruelling negotiations with his counterparts from the 5+1 and Iran, appeared for his first hearing before the sceptical members of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). The committee, which he chaired until he was made secretary of state in early 2013, challenged him on the substance of the deal and the ramifications for Israel.
Kerry responded that there is no “unicorn” or “fantasy” alternative if the US rejects the deal, which he emphatically maintained will keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon but which almost all Republicans, and many Democrats, see as providing Iran a “path to a bomb”. Committee Chairman Bob Corker (Republican from the State of Tennessee), said that the US had been “fleeced” and that Kerry had “turned Iran from being a pariah, to now Congress being a pariah” in the course of reaching this agreement.Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who is also seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, warned repeatedly that the next president could overturn the deal, which is not a binding treaty. Rubio reiterated the points made in a letter signed and sent last March by 47 Republican senators disavowing any commitment to fulfill a deal reached by the Obama administration and Iran. The letter was deemed at the time as an unprecedented legislative interference in foreign affairs, historically the domain of the US president and the Department of State.
During the hearing, it was clear that several Democrats remain sceptical about a deal with Iran, which is vehemently opposed by Israel and its main lobby in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In one of the hearing’s more heated exchanges, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who is a close ally of AIPAC and is currently facing corruption charges, seemed to repeat Israeli Prime-Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s claims that neither he (Netanyahu) nor Congress had been closely consulted during the negotiating process.
When Kerry tried to interrupt Menendez, who is opposed to the deal the senator replied testily, “I have limited time. You’ve been with the Iranians two years. I have seven minutes.”
Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who has yet to say whether he will support the deal, did praise it for rolling back Iran’s nuclear programme but worried about what would happen when it expires in 15 years.
However, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, herself a close ally of AIPAC and a prominent member of the American Jewish Community, defended the deal and took issue with Corker’s comments.
Congress could vote against the deal at the end of the 60-day review, which Obama conceded to last April, shortly before the Framework Agreement was reached between the 5+1 and Iran in Lausanne, Switzerland.However, he has promised to veto such a vote, but would need to round up a significant number of Democrats in order to sustain the veto. According to the United States Constitution, Congress needs a two-third majority in both houses to override a presidential veto. That would require 291 in the House and 67 in the Senate.
Currently, Republicans hold majorities in both houses. In the House of Representatives, the Republicans hold 247 seats while the Democrats 188 seats. In the Senate, Republicans have 53 seats, the Democrats hold 44 seats, while there are two independent members who normally vote with Democrats.
Kerry said that the US could not simply ignore Iran or walk away from the plan, which calls for new oversight and controls on uranium enrichment in return for an end to economic sanctions.
He told senators, “Let me underscore the alternative to the deal we have reached is not – as I’ve seen some ads on TV suggesting disingenuously – it isn’t a ‘better deal’, some sort of unicorn arrangement involving Iran’s complete capitulation.” He continued, “That is a fantasy, plain and simple, and our intelligence community will tell you that.”
Meanwhile, Jewish American groups both opposing and supporting the Iran deal are preparing to spend millions of dollars to target undecided members of Congress, according to the Washington Post.
The report, published on July 17, suggests that AIPAC (and the Republican Jewish Coalition that is against the deal) are looking to spend $40 million on advertising and campaigns to mobilize opponents to contact their representatives in Congress.
The liberal American Jewish organization J Street, which describes itself as pro-Israel but is in favour of the deal, is gearing up to spend $2-$3 million to mobilize other supporters. It has already begun a campaign to bring former Israeli military officials and political figures to the US to voice their support and explain how they think it makes the Jewish state safer.
According to the American Jewish daily The Forward, “a small but growing group of high-power ex-commanders has been speaking out in media interviews and op-ed essays in the past few days, saying that Netanyahu has got the Iran issue wrong”.
While Obama and Kerry face an uphill battle in Congress, estimates are that they will prevail. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Reuters after the deal was signed on July 14 that it would be “hard” to override a presidential veto if Congress rejects the deal.