Win McNamee / Getty Images

Senate vote paves way for congressional oversight of Iran deal

Obama administration signals support, but Senate bill could complicate its efforts to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran

A deal reached in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, which would give Congress a final vote over U.S. negotiations with Iran, added a new roadblock to the Obama administration’s efforts to conclude a landmark nuclear deal with Iran by June 30.

Called the Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015, the bill was unanimously passed by the 19-member Senate committee after Senators Bob Corker, R-Tenn. and Ben Cardin, D-Md., reached a compromise on its language. It would provide at least a 30-day review period after the signing of any international agreement to place limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

That review period would allow Congress to pass a resolution approving or rejecting a final deal, and President Obama would be unable to lift sanctions on Iran previously levied by Congress during that period.

Many U.S. legislators have expressed concerns that they have been sidelined from the negotiating process.

“Congress should have the opportunity to review this deal,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said on Tuesday. “We shouldn’t just count on the administration, who appears to want a deal at any cost.”

The House will soon debate its version of the bill.

After saying for weeks that it would veto the bill, the White House indicated on Tuesday that it was now inclined to approve the amended bill after the most recent changes. That concession may indicate that the administration realized the bill had gained enough support to override a presidential veto.

"Despite the things about it that we don't like, enough substantial changes have been made that the president would be willing to sign it," White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said on Tuesday.

On April 2, the U.S. and five other world powers reached an understanding on the framework with Iran upon which the final terms of a deal must be negotiated by June 30.

Regardless of a congressional review of any final deal, the timing of sanctions relief in exchange for curbs to Iran’s nuclear program remains a point of contention between Tehran and the six world powers. Negotiators will meet again on April 21 to work through those outstanding differences.

Iran wants sanctions relief automatically after a deal is signed, while the U.S. and its negotiating partners have expressed desire for a phased approach, reducing sanctions slowly once international compliance with curbs on the nuclear program can be verified. The U.S. also wants sanctions on Iran to snap back into place automatically if Iran is determined to have violated the agreement.

President Barack Obama does not need Congressional approval to negotiate with Iran, but lawmakers can significantly complicate his efforts to lift sanctions, many of which require congressional support. Proponents of a deal with Iran fear that the new bill could weaken the U.S. negotiating position by calling into question the administration’s ability to follow through on its pledges.

“This bill undercuts U.S. negotiating leverage by casting as an open question whether the U.S. can honor it commitments,” Jamal Abdi, of the National Iranian American Council, said in statement. “The uncertainty the bill creates regarding U.S. ability to provide sanctions relief, combined with the backlash that it could generate in Iran to limit their negotiators’ maneuverability, could very well mean greater U.S. concessions will be necessary to secure a deal."

The biggest positive for the Obama administration in the compromise bill is that it largely limits congressional review to nuclear negotiations. Several members of Congress wanted to make a final agreement tied to changes in Iran's foreign policy, including its support for proxy groups opposed to the U.S. in the Middle East and its antipathy toward Israel.

Republicans, who have been largely skeptical of negotiations from the beginningused the vote on the bill to put their stamp on negotiations that they have felt excluded from.

”We believe it is our role to ensure that any deal with Iran makes them accountable, is transparent and is enforceable,” said Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

For many Democrats, who have largely supported Obama's negotiations, the bill gives them a way to assert their congressional authority without imperiling the substance of an eventual agreement.

“There's no longer language in the bill tying extraneous issues (to the bill),” said Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. “That would be a deal breaker.”

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said making a deal with Congress now will prevent challenges later on. If not for this compromise, he said, “We would go through an indeterminate period of months in which the Republican-controlled Congress would make its best efforts to prevent any implementation of the agreement.” 

Secretary of State John Kerry pressed the administration’s case on Monday and Tuesday in private congressional briefings, where he called for breathing room while negotiations are underway.

“We hope Congress listens carefully and asks the questions that it wants,” Kerry said. “But also give us the space and the time to be able to complete a very difficult task which has high stakes for our country."

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter