Demanding a bigger role in the Iran nuclear negotiations, key Democrats are beginning to openly criticize the Obama administration for its plans to avoid an immediate vote on a deal aimed at reining in Tehran’s nuclear program.
"I disagree with the administration’s reported assertion that it does not need to come to Congress at this point during negotiations with Iran," said New York’s Eliot Engel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s top Democrat, in a statement on Tuesday.
"As negotiations continue on a deal to prevent a nuclear Iran, Congress cannot be circumvented," New York’s Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Foreign Policy.
At issue is the administration’s plan to temporarily suspend economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic without a vote in Congress. The administration says that Congress will have the final word in deciding whether to permanently lift the sanctions — a concession that would only happen if Tehran demonstrates compliance on a host of restrictions to its nuclear program.
The dustup on the Hill follows a report in the New York Times that revealed a Treasury Department study concluding that President Barack Obama has the authority to suspend the "vast majority" of Iran sanctions without Congress — an authority the president plans to exercise if an agreement with Tehran can be reached.
The State Department has since gone into overdrive to assure Congress that it’s a key partner in the negotiations.
"There are many ways Congress can play a role in these negotiations and discussions," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Monday. "We have had multiple, countless briefings with experts and negotiators, hearings, phone calls with members of Congress."
She emphasized that Congress is needed to "ultimately terminate these sanctions."
Despite its unpopularity on the Hill, a number of non-proliferation groups have endorsed this strategy as the only viable way to secure a deal with Iran that’s durable and amenable to all sides.
"Congressional action at the outset of an agreement is premature," said Kelsey Davenport, a director at the Arms Control Association. "In a final deal, when Iran’s commitment to a peaceful and verifiably limited nuclear program is well established, Congress will need to weigh in and lift sanctions. In the initial phases of an agreement, using presidential waivers to grant relief to Iran maintains the leverage created by sanctions and provides incentive to Iran to follow through on its obligations."
Of course, the prospect of lifting any sanctions remains highly theoretical as diplomats try to reach an accord by the self-imposed Nov. 24 deadline. The United States, joined by China, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K., is haggling with Iran over how many centrifuges it will be allowed to spin and the invasiveness of post-deal inspections.
Making matters more difficult for the administration, many lawmakers, egged on by powerful lobbying interests, are convinced that Obama will lift sanctions but fail to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. For that reason, they want to maintain as much control over the talks as possible.
Leading the charge is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying organization that has promoted multiple congressional letters underscoring the legislative branch’s indispensable place at the negotiating table. "We have long supported a strong congressional role," an AIPAC source said.
This intra-governmental friction continues to loom large in matters big and small.
On Sunday, for instance, the Times reported that the Obama administration got congressional leaders to allow Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman to "avoid public testimony" as she leads the sensitive negotiations in the run-up to the Nov. 24 deadline. (U.S. officials want to avoid disclosing anything in a public hearing that could diminish America’s negotiating position overseas). However, congressional sources deny that any such arrangement was made.
"There is no agreement that allows Under Secretary Sherman to avoid testifying. The only thing standing in the way would be the administration’s willingness to do so," said an aide for the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The aide added that the committee would not hesitate to ask Sherman to testify.
An aide for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also denied giving her a pass. "There is no such agreement," spokesman Kevin Smith said.
Sherman, the No. 4 official at State, is also under consideration to become the next deputy secretary of state after veteran diplomat Bill Burns departs next month. Though some sources say her experience working on the Iran portfolio could make for a difficult confirmation process, others have pointed out her long-standing ties with key lawmakers, including Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, whom she helped get elected to the Senate and served as her House chief of staff.
"She has a lot of friends up on the Hill still today … an army of members of Congress who know her and respect her the same way her colleagues at the department do, including a secretary of state who spent about 30 years in the Senate as well," David Wade, the chief of staff for Secretary of State John Kerry, told FP. "I worked there off and on for 14 years, and even though she wasn’t working there any longer, people still pointed to Wendy as the model of how a great chief of staff should operate."
A Senate aide, frequently at odds with the administration over Iran policy, agreed. "With Mikulski’s backing, Sherman can call in a lot of favors on the Hill."
Still, that her role as chief negotiator is even mentioned as a potential hurdle before talks have concluded shows how toxic the issue has become on Capitol Hill, where antipathy toward Iran is one of the few unifiers left in Washington.