Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) speaks with reporters after announcing his retirement..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – In May of 2015, as then-president Barack Obama was convincing Arab world leaders at Camp David of the merits of his pending nuclear deal with Iran, Congress was passing the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act – a bill designed to provide the legislature with broad oversight powers over the international agreement and a decisive vote on its worth.
Obama had for months threatened to veto any bill of this kind. But Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, offered a compromise. He agreed to shorten the review period Congress would have before voting on the deal; allowed for disapproval on the deal to survive a 34-vote, veto-sustaining minority; and accepted clarifying language in the bill that Congressional approval of the deal is not necessary for its enforcement.
Indeed, Corker’s agreement with his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, ultimately paved the way for a vote on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that allowed for the deal to endure to this day. This was the crux of criticism leveled against Corker over the weekend by President Donald Trump, who on Twitter accused him of being singularly responsible for the “horrendous” nuclear accord.
But Corker’s compromise bill was supported by all his party colleagues.
In fact, it was so supported by the Republican Congressional Caucus that, when it was thrown to the House for a vote, GOP leaders there rigorously blocked partisan amendments from their own members that risked breaking consensus and prompting another presidential veto threat. It passed in the Senate 98-1.
While Corker’s law provided Obama with a low threshold to pass in the proceeding vote on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s merits, it also provided Congress with a critical set of review powers. That included a requirement that the president certify Iranian compliance every 90 days, based on its transparent performance within the accord, as well as on the rolling assessment that continued sanctions relief is in the national security interests of the United States.
It is this requirement that is irking Trump, who would rather not certify Iran’s compliance to the accord every three months.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee both lobbied in favor of the review act. The National Iranian American Council opposed it. In private, Netanyahu also supported a “strong Congressional role” in the review process.
Throughout the nuclear talks and as they reached their climax, Corker urged Obama to avoid the sort of deal that ultimately resulted. In his mind, that meant one that provides Iran with all of the strategic benefits of a nuclear power without all of the diplomatic costs that come with actually building a weapon. Corker’s nuance on the nuclear challenge provided him clout with his colleagues on the other side of the aisle who struggled to buck a president of their own party over their concerns with the deal.
Corker’s penchant for nuanced and balanced policy-making now has no check, as the retiring senator feels unchained – “uncorked,” as the joke goes among Washington’s Twitterer’s – free to slam the president as a petulant child unfit for his office. Corker has been working around the president, going directly instead to the “adults” in the administration – Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – in order to find a middle ground for the president on the Iran deal in which he can express disapproval of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action without ostracizing America’s European allies.
Corker will remain chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until January 2019.
In his retirement announcement, he said he expected some of his most important public service to take place between now and then.
Whether the president likes him or not, Corker will continue to be a critical player in the Iran debate – a deep skeptic of the accord, but a pragmatist who appreciates the need to build consensus both at home and abroad. The very senator that Trump believes is responsible for the Iran deal is the one he may need by his side in order to fix it.