As Fate of Iran Deal Heads to Congress, Both Parties Are Gearing Up for Battle

Even those who voted against the nuclear deal in 2015 understand now it would be a disaster to pull out, one staffer told Haaretz

Tea Party Patriots rally against the Iran nuclear deal on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Sept. 9, 2015
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Ahead of President Trump's speech on Iran this week, in which the President will likely announce his decision to "de-certify" the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, supporters and opponents of the deal are preparing for a political battle in Congress which will ultimately determine the fate of the landmark international agreement.

The White House briefed senators from both parties on its Iran strategy in recent days, and indicated that while Trump will likely de-certify the deal, he isn't planning to completely destroy it, but rather will leave it Congress decide whether or not to re-impose the sanctions that had been in place up until 2015.

This means that the real fight over the fate of the nuclear deal will take place in Congress over the coming months. In order to put an end to the nuclear deal, a majority in both Houses of Representatives and the Senate will have to vote to re-impose the sanctions. Anything short of that would mean that the nuclear deal would take a hit, but could still survive, as long as Iran doesn't take action to end it itself.

Four Congressional staffers from both parties who are involved in discussions over the Iranian issue told Haaretz in recent days that, as of now, there are high chances that there would not be enough support in the Senate for re-imposing the sanctions. While in the House of Representatives there is a significant Republican majority, the Republicans hold a much smaller majority in the Senate, and assuming that all 48 Democratic senators voted against re-imposing sanctions, all that would be needed to save the nuclear deal is three Republican votes.

One prominent Republican Senator, Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is known for his isolationist foreign policy stance, has already indicated that he is opposed to "blowing up" the Iran deal. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who recently announced that he won't seek re-election in 2018, could also vote against re-imposing sanctions. 

Corker made an unusual statement last week by declaring that three senior Trump administration officials - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly - "help separate our country from chaos." At least two of those men, Tillerson and Mattis, are pushing Trump not to withdraw from the nuclear deal. Mattis even went so far as to say publicly last week that the deal serves America's national security interests. Kelly, meanwhile, has reportedly denied John Bolton, a former Bush administration official who has been calling to bomb Iran, from receiving access to the president. 

Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Susan Collins (R-ME), none of which have not shied away from confronting Trump in recent months, are a further three possible candidates. While all three voted against the nuclear deal in 2015, Flake and McCain have both indicated in recent weeks that they have not made up their mind on the issue of re-imposing sanctions, while Collins said that she wants to see clear evidence that Iran has breached the nuclear deal before taking a vote on the issue. So far, however, the administration has not presented any such evidence. 

"Many lawmakers who voted against the deal back in 2015, understand that today there are potentially disastrous policy consequences for pulling out of it," said one Democratic staffer who is involved in efforts to save the deal. The same staffer added that some Republican senators and members of congress are frustrated by Trump's choice to leave the final decision on the deal's fate to Congress:

"He's going to score a political win with his base by giving a speech and attacking the Iran deal in front of the cameras, and then he's going to let them do the dirty work of saving us from the deal's collapse."

Some Republicans, the staffer added, have even expressed concern that if and when the Senate indeed saves the deal, Trump would further energize his base by blaming the Republican Congressional leadership for failing to destroy the nuclear accord. 

On Friday, Bloomberg News reported that AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israeli lobby group in Washington, is favoring a "bi-partisan approach" to the Iran deal after de-certification. It's not clear what exactly AIPAC will ask senators and members of Congress to do, but since the overwhelming majority of Democrats will likely oppose the re-imposition of sanctions, it will be hard for the lobby to push for such a move and present it as bi-partisan. 

Last week, two prominent Democrats who voted against the nuclear deal in 2015 and are considered strong supporters of Israel - Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) - published statements against de-certifying the deal. Deutch also led a group of over 180 Democrats who sent a letter to Trump last week urging the president to keep the nuclear accord in place. "This is an indicator of growing unity within the Democratic Party around the deal," another Democratic staffer involved in the issue said.  "Senators and members know that the base of the party is overwhelmingly in favor of it." 

Meanwhile, the left-wing Jewish lobby group J Street organized a string of briefings last week for legislators from both parties with Uzi Arad, a former National Security Adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Alon Pinkas, a former senior Israeli diplomat who served as Consul General in New York and as an adviser to four foreign ministers. Arad and Pinkas explained why they believe it is in Israel's security interest to retain the nuclear deal, and that it was a view was shared by many prominent officials within Israel's security and intelligence communities. 

Arad, who served as Netanyahu's National Security Adviser from 2009 to 2011, and worked with him during his time as leader of the opposition, re-iterated the point in an interview with The New Yorker that was published on Friday.

"What I did in the last few months," he explained in the interview, "is talk to people I think very highly of. One is very respected in the field of science but has been in the intelligence community, is a general by rank. Another is a very senior bureaucrat from the atomic-energy establishment. A third one is a former head of military intelligence. All of whom, from day one, did not think that the agreement was the catastrophe that it was described to be. Quite the contrary." 

Arad and Pinkas also told lawmakers that it was important for the U.S. to focus its efforts on pushing back against Iran's aggression in Syria and its support for terror organizations across the Middle East - issues which could be addressed by Congress in legislation even if the nuclear deal remained in place. 

Arad and Pinkas had more briefings with Republicans than with Democrats during their two days of meetings on Capitol Hill, reflecting the importance of every Republican vote in determining the future of the deal. It also reflects the openness on behalf of some Republicans who voted against the nuclear accord in 2015 to hear arguments in favor of keeping it.