Israel cheers as Obama retreats before Congress on Iran deal

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.(Reuters / Nir Elias )
Israel said it is pleased with a compromise bill being floated on the Hill, which would give US legislators oversight in the Iran nuclear deal. The White House agreed to the bill adopted by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"We are certainly happy this morning, this is an achievement for Israeli policy... [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's] speech in Congress ... was decisive in achieving this law, which is a very important element in preventing a bad deal, or at least, in improving the agreement and making it more reasonable," Yuval Steinitz, Netanyahu’s intelligence, foreign relations and strategic minister, told Israel Radio.

Israel has been opposing US reengagement with Iran, claiming the result of the nuclear negotiations would be a bad deal that would compromise Israel’s national security. Netanyahu made his case in the US through pro-Israeli legislators, who are opposed to US President Barack Obama.

“What was achieved last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement, but a historic mistake,” said Netanyahu, after a preliminary deal paving the way for negotiations was reached in 2013.

Under the 2010 “Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act,” the president can waive sanctions imposed by Congress for a limited time, as a policy measure. However, Senate Bill 615 would remove that option and insist on congressional review of the final nuclear agreement with Iran before any of those sanctions could be waived.

Proposed by Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Democrat Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015” envisions a 52-day review period during which the president “may not waive, suspend, reduce, provide relief from, or otherwise limit the application of statutory sanctions with respect to Iran under any provision of law.” The White House can still suspend, waive or remove sanctions imposed by executive order.

Read More: Americans don’t want Congress to sabotage Iran deal – new poll

If the bill is adopted, then Congress would be able to reject the nuclear agreement with Iran through a joint resolution, preventing Obama from lifting any congressional sanctions and possibly scuppering the treaty.

Iranian officials have said that the preliminary agreement reached in Geneva earlier this month would see most nuclear-related sanctions lifted immediately, while US officials maintain the sanctions would be lifted in phases, depending on Tehran’s compliance. This is one of the issues that still needs to be resolved before the June deadline for the final agreement.

We have two and a half months more to negotiate, that's a serious amount of time with some serious business left to do,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters Monday, after meeting with the legislators behind closed doors. “We hope Congress listens carefully and asks the questions that it wants. But also give us the space and the time to be able to complete a very difficult task which has high stakes for our country.”

READ MORE: Obama: Historic deal reached on Iran nuclear program

Under the amended text of the bill agreed in committee, Obama would also have to certify to Congress every 90 days that Iran was complying with the final agreement, and submit detailed reports on Iran’s nuclear program, ballistic missile program, and “support for terrorism,” all of which remain thorny issues between Washington and Tehran.

Announcing the preliminary agreement on April 2, Obama said he wanted Congress to play a “constructive oversight role” in the negotiating process. However, the White House has argued that making international agreements is a constitutional prerogative of the executive branch, and that congressional oversight of the Iran deal would set a dangerous precedent. It now appears that Corker-Menendez has enough support from the congressional Democrats to override the veto Obama has been threatening, a senior Democratic aide told the New York Times.

Amendments proposed by several Republican Senators, including presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, could erode the bipartisan support. There were several amendments that would “pull this bill sharply to the right if adopted,” Senator Chris Coons (D-Del) told reporters Tuesday.

With Republicans making up the majority of the Foreign Relations Committee, these amendments could be adopted through a party-line vote. If that happens, Coons cautioned, “I’d drop off of it in a second.”