As Iran deadline looms, Obama faces intense skepticism in Congress


WASHINGTON (JTA) — With the Nov. 24 deadline for an Iran deal looming, there’s no guarantee that the Obama administration will achieve its long-sought goal of an agreement over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

But there’s at least one outcome that is a virtual certainty: Obama will face a deeply skeptical and assertive Congress.

The Republican sweep of midterm elections earlier this month means that any deal will face even more intense scrutiny — and probably resistance — in Congress. Even an attempt to further extend the talks is likely going to be a tough sell for Obama on Capitol Hill.

Barring the complete collapse of negotiations — considered an improbable outcome given how vested all the parties are in the talks — one of two results are likely by deadline day: either a comprehensive deal or a framework deal coupled with an agreement to further extend the talks.

On Nov. 5, the day after the election, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that if the administration seeks to extend the talks, it can expect legislation intensifying sanctions against Iran.

“I will not support extension of #Iran talks with further sanctions suspension,” Menendez said, according to a tweet by Nathan Diament, the director of the Washington office of the Orthodox Union, who attended the event.

Menendez co-authored a bill last year with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) that would have triggered new sanctions should the talks fail, but Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), heeding administration warnings that the bill could scuttle the talks entirely, used parliamentary maneuvers to bury it.

In a joint statement last week, Kirk and Menendez set down markers for what they said would be an acceptable deal.

“We believe that a good deal will dismantle, not just stall, Iran’s illicit nuclear program and prevent Iran from ever becoming a threshold nuclear weapons state,” the senators said. “This will require stringent limits on nuclear-related research, development and procurement, coming clean on all possible military dimensions issues and a robust inspection and verification regime for decades to prevent Iran from breaking-out or covertly sneaking-out.”

Kirk and Menendez made clear that anything short of those requirements would lead Congress “to act decisively” — a threat understood to mean the intensification of sanctions.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Corker, (R-Tenn.), who is due to replace Menendez as Foreign Relations Committee chairman in January, is ready to sponsor legislation in the next Congress that would require congressional approval for a deal.

“In January of next year, we’re going to stop talking and start voting,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), said last week at a meeting of the Israeli American Council, referring to Corker’s bill, which he is co-sponsoring.

Only Republicans have expressed support for Corker’s bill, which would require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster and 67 to override a likely presidential veto. There will be a maximum of 54 Republicans in the next Senate.

Graham introduced a version of the Corker bill last week in Congress, but it was blocked by Democrats. Pro-Israel insiders say that pressure on Democratic senators in the next Congress to support the bill would be intense ahead of 2016, when a number are up for re-election.

Obama administration officials insist they want a deal by Nov. 24. Philip Gordon, the senior National Security Council Middle East staffer, told JTA last week that a failure to meet the deadline would “drastically” reduce the chances for a deal.

But experts say there are signs now that the likeliest outcome is a framework agreement that would include enough details to raise hopes that a final deal could be achieved within several months.

“It appears there will be a deal in principle or a partial deal,” said Heather Hurlburt, a Clinton administration speechwriter who focused on national security issues.

Hurlburt, who now directs a project at the liberal New America Foundation, referred to statements by administration officials like Gordon that have noted “gaps” in the talks but also cited “progress.”

In a briefing for reporters on Tuesday, a senior administration official said there were no plans for an extension but did not count out the possibility.

“There are areas where we have made progress, and I’m very glad for that, but there are still areas in which there are very serious gaps that have to be addressed,” the official said. “Whether they can be in this time frame remains to be seen.”

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