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Strange bedfellows mobilizing to oppose civil nuclear agreement with Russia

It’s only been a week since the Obama administration submitted the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement to Congress, but a surprising coalition of forces on Capitol Hill is already amassing to oppose it. Yesterday, Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, introduced the congressional resolution that will become the basis for a ...

It's only been a week since the Obama administration submitted the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement to Congress, but a surprising coalition of forces on Capitol Hill is already amassing to oppose it.

Yesterday, Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, introduced the congressional resolution that will become the basis for a unique alliance of liberal and conservative lawmakers to exercise their prerogative to oppose the deal (known as the 123 agreement in reference to the relevant section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act), before it becomes policy. Congress has 90 days to shut down the deal from when it was submitted on May 10. Absent any congressional action, it will then go into effect.

Markey's resolution is short, and simply says Congress opposes the deal. But the list of objections behind that opposition is long. Aides said that almost all the same reasons why members opposed the deal when George W. Bush's administration proposed it in 2008 are still valid.

It’s only been a week since the Obama administration submitted the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement to Congress, but a surprising coalition of forces on Capitol Hill is already amassing to oppose it.

Yesterday, Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, introduced the congressional resolution that will become the basis for a unique alliance of liberal and conservative lawmakers to exercise their prerogative to oppose the deal (known as the 123 agreement in reference to the relevant section of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act), before it becomes policy. Congress has 90 days to shut down the deal from when it was submitted on May 10. Absent any congressional action, it will then go into effect.

Markey’s resolution is short, and simply says Congress opposes the deal. But the list of objections behind that opposition is long. Aides said that almost all the same reasons why members opposed the deal when George W. Bush‘s administration proposed it in 2008 are still valid.

Before Bush pulled the deal in response to the Russian-Georgian war, the House actually did pass similar legislation, with 397 votes. A similar Senate bill had 71 cosponsors but never came up for a vote.

At that time, Markey circulated a "dear colleague" letter that outlined several main reasons to object to the deal: Russia continues to assist Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. nonproliferation funding to Russian nuclear institutes may have spilled over into nuclear work for Iran, Russia has sold Iran advanced conventional weapons and air-defense systems, Russian entities continue to face U.S. sanction for WMD- and missile-related transfers, and the overall argument that there is no need for a U.S.-Russia Nuclear Cooperation Agreement. 

Add to that list this year complaints by members that Russia has failed to live up to its obligations in the wake of the cease-fire in Georgia.

Then there is the dynamic of the ongoing Iran sanctions debate at the U.N. Security Council. U.S. officials have admitted that the agreement is tied to Russian help in securing a fourth U.N. sanctions resolution. The current draft, which the Russians support, apparently does not prohibit Moscow from delivering Tehran the S-300 missile systems it has already promised.

Those sales also run afoul of the House version of the Iran sanctions bill, under which no nuclear agreement can be carried out with a country that is providing any nuclear or advanced missile technology to Iran. That bill is currently being reconciled with the Senate version in conference committee.

The Obama administration doubts the Russians would risk the blowback that would result from sending the S-300 missiles to Iran, and says that Russian nuclear assistance to Iran is not a problem.

"As long as I’ve been in this job, there’s been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran," the NSC’s non-proliferation Czar Gary Samore said earlier this month when talking about the 123 agreement.

The agreement’s detractors are also sure to make use of a June 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office, which "identified weaknesses in the process State used to ensure interagency consultation during the development of the classified [Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement] annex that accompanied the U.S.-Russia 123 agreement."

"It boggles the mind that the government can’t even properly evaluate the nuclear proliferation behavior of a country being considered for sensitive U.S. nuclear technology exports," Markey said about the report at the time.

UPDATE: We’ve learned that the lead Republican co-sponsor of the resolution is Jeff Fortenberry, R-NE, who sends along this quote:

"Russia cannot have it both ways. Russia needs to decide who it will be; a nation that stops the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities or accommodates it. Any nuclear agreement with Russia, particularly given its willingness to collaborate with the nuclear activities of Iran and Syria, deserves the closest scrutiny and examination. Congress must assert itself."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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