The U.S. Congress received the Iran nuclear agreement on Sunday and it will have 60 days starting Monday to decide whether to reject the deal. President Barack Obama acceded in May to a review demanded by Congress and has agreed not to waive U.S. sanctions during that period.
For 22 days after that period, Obama could veto a resolution as promised and Congress could try to override it. Overriding the veto will require a two-thirds majority of both the House of Representatives and Senate, so the administration is working to win over enough of Obama's fellow Democrats to offset strong Republican opposition.
The issues drawing the greatest attention of lawmakers as they start to consider the deal range from inspections to sanctions.
The deal gives United Nations inspectors access to suspect Iranian military sites, while giving Tehran 24 days to provide access to the facilities.
Lawmakers who wanted “anytime, anywhere” inspections will want to know how this will ensure that Tehran will not cheat. They worry the delay could allow compromising material to be destroyed. “A lot can be done in 24 days,” said U.S. Representative Steve Israel, a Democrat.
At a news conference this week, Obama said hiding nuclear equipment was so difficult that 24 days would suffice. “This is not something you hide in a closet,” he said.
Congressional questioning about the nuclear deal has focused on the lifting of a U.N. ban on Iran for conventional weapons after five years and for ballistic missile technology after eight years.
“It is hard for us to accept it, so we just want to take a look at it,” said Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lawmakers worry that Tehran's access to advanced arms, even years down the line, would enhance its ability to fuel regional sectarian strife and threaten U.S. ally Israel. Opponents have further lamented that the deal fails to freeze or roll back Iran's advances in ballistic missile development.
The Obama administration says the deal is the only alternative to Iran moving forward on developing a nuclear weapon. Supporters of the deal say the embargo has not kept Tehran and its allies from acquiring ample supplies of arms.
Under the deal, the main oil and financial sanctions could be lifted this year. Many lawmakers questioned the wisdom of giving Iran access to up to $150 billion in revenue before it proves it will adhere to the agreement.
“That is an immediate, giant benefit to the Iranian regime,” said U.S. Representative Brad Sherman, a Democrat. Sherman said he worried the money made available to Tehran would be funneled to corrupt officials or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or militants fighting U.S. allies, or even Americans.
Supporters of the deal say it is better than the alternative and that, even if the United States rejects it, other countries are eager to lift sanctions even without a deal. At his news conference, Obama argued that the Iranians would get $60 or $70 billion in sanctions relief even if the U.S. sanctions stayed in place, but that it would be pursuing a nuclear weapon without the inspections regime. Iran denies seeking a nuclear bomb.
Even lawmakers who are prepared to support the deal said they were disappointed that it did not include the release of former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian and former FBI agent Robert Levinson.
Administration officials say they bring up the prisoners at every meeting with Iranian officials, but said they did not insist on the releases because it was essential to focus the talks with Iran on the nuclear issue.
U.N. Security Council vote
Both Republicans and Democrats, including the chairman and ranking member of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, do not want the United Nations to vote on the Iran nuclear deal before the 82-day U.S. review period ends in September.
After stopping in at a meeting between Vice President Joe Biden and committee Democrats, Senator Bob Corker, the panel's Republican chairman, called the vote, now set for Monday, “an affront to the American people.” Cardin co-signed a letter urging Obama to postpone the vote.
Administration officials insist the Security Council vote will not give the international organization precedence over Congress. The U.N. resolution will not begin to implement the deal for 90 days, which they said was intended to give U.S. lawmakers time to weigh in first.