Iran Nuclear Deal: Can U.S. Lawmakers Be Convinced The Verification Measures Are Good Enough?

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U.S. Lamakers — Both Democrats and Republicans say their support would hinge on how the terms of the deal can be verified

Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel wants Iran to provide ‘immediate access’ for inspectors in any nuclear deal.
Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel wants Iran to provide ‘immediate access’ for inspectors in any nuclear deal. PHOTO: ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG NEWS

WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama, who narrowly eked out congressional approval of his trade agenda this week, again faces a skeptical Congress as his administration attempts to reach a final agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Lawmakers are expressing concerns over lingering unresolved issues, such as how much access inspectors will have to Iran’s facilities, as negotiators approach a month’s end deadline for a final agreement.

Mr. Obama is primarily focused on trying to gain as much congressional support for a deal as he can, since lawmakers last month passed legislation enabling them to review and vote on any final agreement. However, the administration would be able to implement its deal so long as a veto-proof majority in Congress isn’t opposed to it.

Both Democrats and Republicans said this week their support for a deal would hinge on how negotiators resolve remaining sticking points, particularly how international inspectors will be able to verify Iran’s compliance with any new requirements.

“There needs to be immediate access anywhere so that if the Iranians cheat, we can detect it,” said Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “If that’s not going to be the case—as we hear some rumors—then that’s problematic for me.”

Earlier this week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared to back away from commitments his negotiators made in April to restrain parts of Iran’s nuclear program and to allow international inspections of the country’s military sites. He also opposed Western demands that international sanctions be removed in stages, rather than all at once after a deal is reached.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses senior officials in Tehran (23 June 2015)

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

The cleric’s words triggered alarm on Capitol Hill, though U.S. and European officials said they believed Mr. Khamenei’s comments were intended to extract more concessions from the Obama administration and its negotiating partners.

House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) sharply criticized the White House. “The president has handed Iran concession after concession,” Mr. Boehner said Thursday. “Giving Iran more flexibility will not lead to a good deal. It will only lead to more concessions for a regime that has no intention of giving up its desire for a nuclear weapon.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said on the Senate floor Thursday that the U.S. should halt its negotiations until Iran agrees to a gradual lifting of sanctions and unfettered inspections at Iranian military sites, including an accounting of past activity.

Reflecting a congressional desire to make sure the U.S. can apply pressure on Iran if it reneges on any deal, Sens. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) introduced legislation Thursday extending for 10 more years sanctions on Iran set to expire next year.

“If a deal is reached with Iran, it is critical that should Iran violate the terms of an agreement, severe penalties will follow and a forceful snapback of sanctions will occur,” Mr. Menendez said in a statement. “For me, the trend lines of the Iran talks are deeply worrying.”

The White House has been regularly briefing lawmakers about the talks with Iran and five other world powers, and some on Capitol Hill said they were comfortable with their progress and wary of what the alternatives would be.

“I’ve been very supportive of the direction the White House has been going,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, a Democrat. “Let’s give diplomacy a chance.”

But many lawmakers noted the administration’s outreach on Iran had ebbed recently, as the battle over Mr. Obama’s trade agenda dominated Capitol Hill.

“This has been a real near-death experience with trade, and it finally looks like we’re going to survive, and then we’ll turn our attention to the next crisis,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D., Va.), who said his primary concern is the strength of the inspections regime.

At a security conference in Washington Friday, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a deal with Iran would include “exceptional constraints” on Iran’s nuclear program as well as intrusive transparency measures and inspections.

The White House is anticipating lawmakers will ramp up criticism in coming days and has sought to try to minimize the political firestorm. But White House spokesman Eric Schultz disputed on Friday the notion that administration officials had scaled back updates to Congress because of the focus on passing trade legislation.officials have stressed in recent days that any lawmaker with questions about the talks would receive a briefing from an administration official. This week, Treasury officials briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Iranian sanctions, and some House Democrats met with administration officials at the White House on Thursday, according to a lawmaker present at the meeting.

“I don’t know that there’s any sort of regular meeting schedule that’s been established, but I know it is not at all uncommon for members of Congress who are interested in this issue to get a phone call from somebody at the State Department or somebody in the intelligence community, or even somebody at the White House to give them an update on where things stand,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday.

The legislation enacted last month prevents Mr. Obama from waiving sanctions for 30 days while they review a final deal and potentially vote to disapprove it. If lawmakers reject a deal, Mr. Obama would then narrowly focus on stopping an override of his veto authority.

Senior administration officials say they expect the June 30 deadline to slip a few days, as did the March 31 deadline for a framework. Privately, administration officials don’t rule out a longer extension, but Mr. Earnest said this week that “at this point, we’re not planning any sort of longer-term extension.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) said this week that the administration should extend the deadline if doing so would produce a better deal.

“We would be so much better off if we just continued to negotiate and not rush to some artificial deadline on June 30 and try to shortcut some of these very important issues,” Mr. Corker said at a hearing this week.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com and Carol E. Lee atcarol.lee@wsj.com

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