Across party lines, Congress seeks more details on Iran talks

Congress members say they have been left in the dark on basic Iran issues; US Secretary of State John Kerry says he expects "serious and deep congressional engagement" on any future deal.

October 24, 2014 01:38
2 minute read.

US Secretary of State John Kerry walks at the State Department in Washington October 2. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration plans “deep congressional engagement” on any prospective agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Berlin on Thursday, responding to reports President Barack Obama seeks to freeze out the legislature from deliberations.

“We anticipate hearings, a significant amount of back and forth,” Kerry said. “We certainly will be briefing as we go forward in the next weeks. And we look forward to serious and deep congressional engagement in this effort.”

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That comes as welcome news to aides on both sides and in both houses on Capitol Hill, where members are expressing concern that they have been sidelined from the process.

“We’ve been shut out, deliberately,” one senior Senate Republican aide told The Jerusalem Post. One concerned senior Democratic aide in the House echoed the sentiment: “It helps everyone if Congress is not caught off guard.”

A month from a November 24 deadline on talks among the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany with Iran, members of the House and Senate foreign relations committees feel their guess is as good as anyone’s on whether a deal will come to pass.

In part, they say that classified briefings from the administration on the status of the talks have failed to provide details on basic issues on the table: whether Parchin, an Iranian military complex suspected to host the country’s nuclear weaponization efforts, will be monitored or shut; whether ballistic missile technology is still a negotiating point; and most of all, whether Congress will ultimately have a vote on lifting sanctions during Obama’s presidency.

Most acknowledge that the duration of a deal – US negotiators seek an agreement that will last over a decade – will not require immediate action from Congress. Sanctions relief will be paired with Tehran’s demonstrated adherence to the deal, and a substantial portion of that relief, up to 80 percent, can be ordered unilaterally by the president.

But leadership in Congress nevertheless seeks a vote that will signal approval or disapproval of whatever deal is agreed upon.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sought to embed automatic hearings and a non-binding vote on a nuclear agreement in the US-Israel Strategic Partnership Act over the summer, delaying a vote on the bill by several months.

And his Democratic colleague, Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), has repeatedly exerted Congress’s authority as an equal partner in matters of foreign affairs.

Sanctions relief written into a deal with Iran, Kerry said, will not “in any way write Congress out of the process or suggest, that in the end, Congress isn’t going to have a vote.”

The Joint Plan of Action, an interim deal set into effect in January that froze the nuclear crisis with Iran, allows the parties up to a year to negotiate.

“We are looking for an arrangement in which the administration consults with Congress on the menu of sanctions that are on the table for suspension or waiver,” the Democratic aide said, adding, “many in Congress would welcome deeper engagement.”

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