The White House says it’s confident it has the votes to override Republicans who reject the historic accord to limit Iran’s nuclear program agreed to by world powers and Tehran. But some of America’s closest allies are less certain, and are clearing their schedules to meet with wavering Democratic lawmakers in a push to keep the deal intact.
Some of Washington’s less reliable partners are worried too: Top diplomats from Russia and China joined a rare meeting of world powers’ envoys on Capitol Hill this week with roughly 30 Senate Democrats to tamp down concerns over the nuclear agreement.
“The prospect of the rejection of a deal makes us nervous,” Philipp Ackermann, the acting German ambassador to the United States, said Thursday. “It would be a nightmare for every European country if this is rejected.”
The closed-door meeting, which was held Tuesday, sought to dispel criticisms and answer questions ahead of an expected September vote by Congress. That vote will determine whether to continue current U.S. sanctions against Iran and blow up the nuclear agreement, or let the sanctions expire over time as promised in exchange for Tehran rolling back its nuclear program.
During the meeting, which was confirmed to Foreign Policy by an aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a number of Democrats expressed genuine confusion about how world powers would react if Congress rejected the deal, and whether a “better deal” could be struck in the future. Surprised by this lack of clarity, the diplomats pushed back on a number of counts.
British Ambassador Peter Westmacott insisted any chances of getting a better deal were “far-fetched,” according to two individuals in the room. He also speculated that international sanctions against Tehran would fall apart even if Congress blocked the deal — a view seconded by Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
A British Embassy spokesperson declined to discuss the details of a closed meeting, but said London’s position was clear. “If Congress rejects this good deal, and the U.S. is forced to walk away, Iran will be left with an unconstrained nuclear program with far weaker monitoring arrangements, the current international consensus on sanctions would unravel, and international unity and pressure on Iran would be seriously undermined,” said the spokesperson.
Ackermann said he appealed to lawmakers by emphasizing Germany’s status as “Israel’s biggest friend in Europe.”
“It’s really our conviction that Israel comes out safer in this deal,” Ackermann told a small group of reporters, including FP, at the German Embassy on Thursday. “Otherwise, we would not have signed the deal.”
On Capitol Hill, the French were pressed repeatedly by Democratic senators about the accuracy of a Bloomberg View report that quoted lawmakers who said they were told Paris believes the United States could increase its leverage over Iran if Congress blocked the deal. The lawmakers quoted in the Bloomberg story attributed those remarks to Jacques Audibert, a senior adviser to French President François Hollande, who has denied saying or suggesting “that a no vote from Congress … might be helpful or lead to a better deal.”
In the Tuesday meeting, the French Embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Frédéric Doré, maintained that world powers secured the best deal possible with Iran.
So far, the push by European allies and Russian and Chinese officials appears to have been effective.
On Thursday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) alluded to the meeting in a statement pledging her support for the nuclear deal — a crucial pickup for the White House. “When I questioned the ambassadors of our P5+1 allies, it also became clear that if we reject this deal, going back to the negotiation table is not an option,” she said. The P5+1 alludes to the world powers that are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany.
With the addition of Gillibrand, 11 senators now publicly support the deal; The White House needs 23 more to maintain its veto power. Other lawmakers attending the briefing included Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Chris Coons of Delaware, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and others. Lobbying for those remaining votes is expected to be fierce as senators head back to their districts this week for the August recess.
During the first half of 2015, the pro-Israel lobbying giant AIPAC spent a record $1.67 million campaigning against the nuclear agreement. The group is also pumping money into a new 501(c)(4) group called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. That outfit is expected to spend at least $20 million on advertising and messaging campaigns in as many as 40 states to oppose the deal.
In the meantime, Ackermann said German officials would meet with any U.S. lawmakers with questions about where Europe stands on the deal. He noted that in the event Congress should reject the agreement, European Union sanctions against Iran could be expected to fall apart.
“Everybody accepts that this deal is an enormous achievement of international diplomacy,” he said. “If the U.S. says, ‘Sorry guys, we can’t pursue this because our Congress isn’t going along with us,’ questions will be asked … Other countries will say, ‘Why should I be following [this] Congress?”
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