CAPITOL HILL - One day before President Barack Obama delivers a major speech urging approval of an international nuclear pact with Iran, U.S. lawmakers who are expected to vote on the deal wrestled with the possible consequences of rejecting it.
The president's foreign policy team spent the past month touting the merits of the agreement and defending it against congressional skeptics. On Wednesday, it will be Obama's turn.
In a speech at American University in Washington, Obama plans to call the congressional decision on Iran "the most consequential foreign policy debate since the decision to go to war in Iraq."
He is expected to say that the choice of whether to accept or reject the deal should not even be a close call. And he will urge lawmakers not to squander a historic opportunity to secure the most comprehensive inspections regime ever negotiated, and one that cuts off Iran's pathway to a nuclear bomb.
On Tuesday, however, lawmakers were listening to other views and pondering what action to take.
“This committee and Congress are about a month away from having to decide if this deal is better than no deal,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican.
Differing assessments of the merits of the accord with Iran and the fallout if the United States walks away from it were given by former high-ranking U.S. diplomats and other former officials during testimony Tuesday before Senate committees.
“I don’t believe that congressional defeat of the president’s proposal would lead inevitably to war,” said former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who served during the George W. Bush administration. “But neither do I believe that the nuclear deal leads inevitably to an Iranian nuclear weapon, as some of the critics are suggesting.”
Far more pessimistic was former Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Robert Joseph, also of the Bush administration.
“I know you have heard the arguments that, despite its flaws, Congress should go along with the agreement because it is the best we can do or because it is better than no agreement,” Joseph said. “None of these assertions holds up. We can do better.”
“There is no certainty that we can get a good agreement. There are no risk-free alternatives. But the costs and risks of accepting this bad agreement far outweigh the alternative of going back to the negotiating table,” Joseph added.
“Continuing to sanction Iran and negotiating a better deal, it is an option that deserves to be looked at,” Burns admitted. “Ultimately, I think it probable that such a course would leave us weaker rather than stronger.”
Burns said rejecting the deal would likely sow dissension between the United States and its closest allies, cause the international coalition that backed sanctions against Tehran to falter, and free Iran from existing nuclear restrictions agreed to while the pact was being negotiated.
Joseph said that while U.S. rejection of the deal would provoke an outcry in Tehran and some European capitals, it would generate applause elsewhere.
“Others will cheer us, like Israel and our Arab partners that know Iran a lot better than we do,” Joseph said.
New polls show a dip in public support for the deal and broad skepticism among Americans about Iran’s intentions and willingness to comply with the pact.
“We need to remember that we are discussing today a nonproliferation agreement with a hostile but sovereign country,” said the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. “We need to judge this agreement on its own terms, not against an imagined agreement.”
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, objects to many of the accord’s provisions, including an eventual end to restrictions on international arms sales to Tehran.
“The administration says that the military option will remain on the table if Iran violates the agreement,” McCain said. “Yet the agreement itself would enable Iran to construct the very kind of advanced military arsenal … that could raise the cost of employing our military option.”
Obama has promised to veto likely congressional votes disapproving the nuclear accord. Two-thirds votes in both chambers would be required to override it.