Uphill fight as Kerry defends Iran deal in Congress

Uphill fight as Kerry defends Iran deal in Congress

Will Congress shrug off President Barack Obama’s warning that imposing new sanctions on Iran would derail fragile diplomatic efforts to ensure Tehran does not get a nuclear weapon?

That’s one of the key questions as Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Congress on Tuesday to face off with lawmakers wary of the tentative and temporary nuclear deal. His visit comes amid signs the American public doesn’t much like the agreement and doesn’t much trust Iranian intentions.

Kerry will testify at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing entitled “The Iran Nuclear Deal: Does It Further U.S. National Security.”

His appearance comes at a critical juncture for the agreement: Obama has been warning lawmakers against imposing any new sanctions on Iran, and saying that military action would have only limited impact on that country’s nuclear ambitions.

The hearing on Tuesday will likely provide some clues as to whether lawmakers are prepared to hold off or plan to press ahead.

Rep. Ed Royce, R.-Calif., the panel’s chairman, has been a leading champion of imposing sanctions on Iran and a vocal critic of the interim deal, which is meant to freeze key aspects of Tehran’s nuclear program for six months. In return, the Islamic republic will see a slight easing of sanctions while negotiators from both sides attempt the daunting task of hammering out a long-term agreement.

“I continue to have serious concerns that the agreement the Obama administration negotiated does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies,” Royce said in a statement on Monday. “This hearing will be an opportunity for Committee Members of both parties to press Secretary Kerry to explain why the Obama administration believes this sanctions-easing agreement is the right course."

It’s not clear how much help Kerry will get from congressional Democrats. None has publicly vowed to scuttle the agreement, but several key lawmakers in each chamber have said that they would like to at least consider tougher sanctions.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has been among the staunchest advocates of new sanctions and has been been eyeing his options.

The administration has a potential parliamentary ace up its sleeve: Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could buck pressure from his colleagues and decline to hold a vote.

The debate comes a day after a Pew Research Center/USA Today public opinion poll found that 43 percent of Americans disapprove of the agreement, 32 percent approve and 25 percent offer no opinion.

And by 62 percent to 29 percent, Americans do not trust that Iran’s leaders are serious about fulfilling the agreement.

Among Republicans, 58 percent disapprove while just 14 percent approve. Among Democrats, 50 percent approve and 27 percent disapprove. The numbers for independents are 47 percent and 29 percent.

But even some of Obama’s biggest critics in Congress seem willing to give him significant space to act. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.., roundly condemned Iran’s nuclear subterfuges and sharply criticized the agreement for allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium — a process necessary for both the nuclear power Iran says it wants and the atomic weapons it says it does not want.

But he said this Monday morning on CBS: “We will — and when I say ‘we,’ we the critics — will say that after six months is elapsed, if there's no deal then we think increased sanctions are the most effective way to bring Iran around.”

That dovetails roughly with Obama’s own take.

“If at the end of six months it turns out that we can’t make a deal, we’re no worse off, and in fact we have greater leverage with the international community to continue to apply sanctions and even strengthen them,” Obama said Saturday.

And Obama himself sounded uncertain that the temporary deal would lead to a comprehensive one.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s more than 50/50,” he said. “But we have to try.”