Obama caves on Corker-Menendez

We’ve been following the political action following the arrangement in process with Iran mostly via the email reports of Omri Ceren. Today he mailed two reports on the Corker-Menendez bill, which passed unanimously out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this afternoon. In the second of the two messages below, Omri reports that the White House has backed off its veto threat in light of its impending loss on this matter. Some readers may want to skip to the second of these two messages.

These messages are not brief, but I think they summarize the information necessary to understand developments in this most consequential matter. Here is Omri’s first message, sent this morning.

Happy Markup Day.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes up Corker-Menendez at 2:15pm today, and it looks like the session will go quickly. The NYT, Reuters, CNN, etc. are reporting that Corker and Cardin came to an agreement on language earlier today, and the NYT quoted a senior Democratic aide saying that the changes mean the bill will “now have overwhelming, veto-proof support.” Reuters has more details on what the final provisions – which call for Congressional approval of any Iran deal – will probably look like.

I’ll send around whatever gets finalized this afternoon, but it looks like this is locked and everyone has their lines. Opponents from the left will say the vote damaged hopes for a deal. Supporters will respond that any deal that can’t stand up to Congressional scrutiny isn’t worth having. Opponents from the right will say the bill actually undermines Congressional prerogatives because it requires a supermajority to block a deal. Supporters will respond that any bipartisan compromise legislation capable of mustering a veto-proof majority is going to be imperfect.

All of which will get lost in what’s sure to be the broader takeaway: Congress looked at what came out of Lausanne and they didn’t like it. Then they got briefed by the administration – and they liked it even less. This is their way of sending a message to the President about the need to make any deal stronger, and this is their way of mobilizing pressure to make sure their message gets through.

The question is what exactly they didn’t like. On that point, I wanted to make sure you had the report on the Lausanne announcement published this weekend by David Albright’s Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which has been making the rounds on the Hill. ISIS is widely considered one of the most credible shops on Iran proliferation, if not flat out the most credible. But because their paper is so brutal – it’s tersely titled “P5+1/Iran Framework: Needs Strengthening” – Albright and his team had to open by reminding people of that: “no outside group has worked as much as ours on generating recommended provisions for this deal, identifying missing pieces, and assessing the strengths and weaknesses of proposed provisions… consistently we have been met with gratitude and positive feedback from negotiators in several countries about our contributions.”

Then there’s a brief bright spot for the administration – ISIS assesses that Iran’s concessions on the Arak heavy water reactor are adequate – before things get very bad on every other issue. The whole paper is 13 pages, it gets wonkish at times, and there’s no way a summary could be adequate. There are sections like the one on breakout times, where the authors are in disbelief that the administration refuses to include Iran’s 20% enriched uranium in breakout calculations, which just have to be slogged through.

But one useful way to wrap your mind around the paper – and this gets back to the conversation on the Hill – is that it’s a catalog of how the concessions made to Iran at Lausanne detonated the possibility of a good deal. In order to get even the contested announcement that came out, the Americans had to cave diplomatically on a variety of issues. The ISIS paper, in part, now describes the consequences of those concessions. It’s not written that way – it’s just a policy paper that goes issue by issue – but it can be usefully read like that to see how the political and policy debates are interacting. Remember how the news unfolded during Lausanne:

Wednesday 25th — the Wall Street Journal revealed that Iran will be allowed to put off making a full disclosure of its nuclear activities until after sanctions relief — now the ISIS assessment on disclosure: “Negotiators must not agree to lift UNSC sanctions before the IAEA has reached its broader conclusion about the peaceful nature of Iran’s program, including determining the extent of past progress on Iran’s military nuclear program and dismantling any remaining efforts… Unless this facet of Iran’s nuclear program is dealt with, no agreement should be made. It is a deal component that negotiators would ignore at the peril of regional security and peace.”

Thursday 26h — the Associated Press revealed that Iran will be allowed to continue spinning centrifuges in its underground military bunker at Fordow — now the ISIS assessment on Fordow: “A surprise in the Framework is the proposed continuation of the Fordow enrichment plant… If bans on producing near 20 percent LEU also sunset at year 15 (see above), this heavily fortified plant would be capable of producing enough weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon within a few weeks, or enough WGU for two weapons in less than a month.”

Monday 29th — the New York Times revealed that Iran will not be forced to ship its enriched uranium beyond its borders — now the ISIS assessment on stockpiles: “How will this material be disposed of so that the limit is not exceeded?… accumulations of more than 500 kilograms of 3.5 percent LEU above the 300 kilogram limit would lower breakout times significantly below 12 months… If Iran accumulates stocks of 3.5 percent LEU hexafluoride above 1,000 kilograms and can access quickly only 50 kilograms of near 20 percent LEU hexafluoride, it could reduce breakout times to less than six months.”

Again, these are just part of the paper. But they’re enough to understand why Congress is demanding oversight: combined, the concessions made in just the last few weeks to the Iranians give Tehran a breakout time significantly shorter than 12 months, an enrichment facility where breakout can happen that’s impervious to most air attacks, and a verification regime so weak it threatens to undermine “regional security and peace.”

Here is Omri’s second message, commenting on the passage of the Corker-Menendez bill out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a unanimous vote:

That was quick. Apparently everything had indeed been worked out this morning. One token failed amendment, one vote on everything else in a single manager’s package, and then a quick vote. 19-0.

The big news from this afternoon isn’t actually the vote. It was already clear by late this morning that the legislation would get out of committee with strong bipartisan support, although I don’t think anyone was willing to predict unanimous support. As I wrote in the morning’s email with the Albright report, today’s compromise between Corker and Cardin guaranteed that the markup would be a snoozefest (let me know if you didn’t get that email, by the way, because the report at the bottom is now one of the most important policy document circulating around).

Instead the breaking news is that the Obama administration flipped this afternoon, just before the markup started, and withdrew its veto threat. Josh Earnest disclosed the move to reporters at today’s White House briefing. In retrospect this was probably just simple math. After the Corker-Cardin compromise, a Senate Democratic staffer told the New York Times that a veto-proof majority was now assured. McCarthy had already told reporters that he had the votes he needed in the House to sustain a veto. Someone in the White House seems to have counted to 67 and 290, and made the call.

The White House spin is that the Corker-Cardin compromise substantively altered the legislation, so that now just ‘a vote to vote later’ on sanctions. The spin is going to be tough to sustain, and it’s not yet clear what part of the legislation the White House is even claiming was substantively altered. One change reduced the time Congress gets to review a deal from 60 days to 52 days. Another change removed language linking sanctions to Iranian terrorism (Barrasso offered an amendment to put the restriction back in, which failed 13-6 and had Corker quipping that if Iranian terrorism kills Americans they’re going to get missiles not sanctions). Neither of those seem particularly dramatic.

The substantive problem for the White House spin is that this bill locks in what Corker-Menendez was always supposed to lock in: it gives Congress the ability to intervene after an Iran deal is signed by the parties but before it is implemented by Washington. The legislation prohibits the President from implementing the provisions of a deal immediately, and instead provides lawmakers with 30 days to review its details. If Congress acts to block the deal, the President will presumably veto that action, at which point lawmakers will have the remainder of the 52 days to try to override the veto.

Corker more or less rolled his eyes at the spin during today’s markup: “I think the reason the administration in the last 2 hours has chosen the path that they’re now taking, is the number of Senators that they realized were going to support this legislation.” He had already brushed aside the idea that there were any substantive changes: “This legislation is exactly the congressional review we’ve been working on since day 1.”

The political problem for the White House spin is that it looks like they lost big. They fought against oversight for months, up to and including accusing supporters of being warmongers (also something that came up during today’s session). The National Iranian American Council – one of the groups that has been at the front of the White House campaign to block Congressional action – issued a press release blasting the vote and declaring “the compromise amendment that was struck by Senators Corker and Cardin does not change the fundamental problems with this bill.” Beyond the substance, it’s just very difficult in DC to spin a loss like this. Votes spin themselves. The White House talk about substantive changes is probably aimed as much at preventing that narrative from taking hold, as it is anything else.

Let me add this: the bill is far from perfect. At best it just locks in how a post-deal vote would go down. Congress always would have needed 67 votes to do anything (imagine the first day after a deal; Congress passes new sanctions; Obama vetoes; Congress needs 2/3 to override). At worst it may help the President by letting him get a headline like “Congress approves Iran deal” if only 34 Senators approve.

But politically, it’s important to show that Congress disapproves of the President’s diplomacy to such an extent that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just advanced legislation 19-0 prohibiting him from touching Congressional sanctions until they review a deal. It builds pressure on the administration to explain what they’re doing. It will serve as a formal way for the Senate to have a debate on the floor. It forces the issue.

UPDATE: Max Boot considers the bill in “Did Corker give Congress a fighting chance on Iran deal?” Jonathan Tobin asks: “Did Obama win by losing on Corker-Melendez?”

ONE MORE: Matt Continetti lays out a cogent case against the bill in “Corker’s folly.”

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