Senate, House differ in letters supporting Obama administration on Iran talks

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) at the recent 2014 AIPAC conference in Washington, DC. Cantor and Hoyer initiated a March 18 letter to President Barack Obama on Iran that was signed by 395 members of the House of Representatives. Credit: AIPAC.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) at the recent 2014 AIPAC conference in Washington, DC. Cantor and Hoyer initiated a March 18 letter to President Barack Obama on Iran that was signed by 395 members of the House of Representatives. Credit: AIPAC.

An analysis of recent letters sent by members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to President Barack Obama pledging support for the administration’s ongoing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program reveal subtle, but crucial differences in tone.

Though the idea of a letter on Iran occupied a key position in the agenda at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference in early March, the day the letters were delivered to the White House on March 18, the self-labeled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street—whose positions on the Iran issue have been more in line with Obama administration policy—claimed victory, stating that the conversation had moved away from “saber-rattling” to support of American-led diplomacy.

Dylan Williams, J Street’s director of government affairs, drew attention to the fact that the letters do not list any prerequisites for a final deal and also would allow Iran to develop a civilian nuclear energy program.

“This started in mid-December as an effort to impose sanctions and conditions as a matter of law through a bill,” said Williams. “That effort failed. Then it transformed into an effort to get a resolution, a bipartisan resolution, laying down parameters and final conditions for a deal. That effort failed.”

“Then there was an effort to get a letter which laid down parameters and conditions, including zero [uranium] enrichment,” he continued. “That effort failed. So then you have a letter that will only be called bipartisan if it is genuinely supportive of the administration’s efforts and does not impose any onerous conditions on the negotiators.”

Both letters, which were signed by an overwhelming majority of senators and House members from both parties, expressed support for the P5+1 negotiations in Geneva, while reasserting the belief that Congress should have a role in any final agreement.

“As negotiations progress, we expect your administration will continue to keep Congress regularly apprised of the details,” the House letter stated. “And, because any long-term sanctions relief will require Congressional action, we urge you to consult closely with us so that we can determine the parameters of such relief in the event an agreement is reached, or, if no agreement is reached or Iran violates the interim agreement, so that we can act swiftly to consider additional sanctions and steps necessary to change Iran’s calculation.”

The House letter, crafted by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), received 395 signatures.

On the topic of sanctions, including those that have been rolled back by the administration after reaching an interim agreement with Iran back in January, the Senate letter stated that members of the chamber “believe, as you do, that the pressure from economic sanctions brought Iran to the table, and that it must continue until Iran abandons its efforts to build a nuclear weapon.”

The Senate letter was led by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH). It was signed by 83 senators.

The letter was not specific whether the senators want to roll sanctions back to pre-framework levels or prevent further relief without an agreement. It also laments the danger of allowing Iran to circumvent current sanctions and benefit from growing international investment in its economy, mentioning reports of rising purchases of Iranian oil as proof.

“Iran cannot be allowed to be open for business,” the letter stated.

Such language could be seen as going further than those on the House side were willing to go. The only mention of sanctions in the House letter indicates that signatories do not oppose the rollback in sanctions, only that they will oppose future relief if certain conditions aren’t met.

“Iran’s leaders must understand that further sanctions relief will require Tehran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon and fully disclose its nuclear activities,” stated the House letter.

While both letters mention dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the House letter specifically mentions the possibility of a civilian program.

“We do not seek to deny Iran a peaceful nuclear energy program, but we are gravely concerned that Iran’s industrial-scale uranium enrichment capability and heavy water reactor being built at Arak could be used for the development of nuclear weapons,” the House members wrote.

The Senate letter seemed to go further.

“We believe that Iran has no inherent right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” the letter stated.

According to a senior Capitol Hill staffer who requested anonymity, these intentional differences had to do with the bipartisan goals set for the letters. The House letter, the staffer explained, is a direct descendent of a previously planned Hoyer-Cantor resolution on Iran sanctions that fell through earlier this year as the administration began pushing back against legislation demanding more sanction if negotiations failed.

The staffer said Hoyer was more sensitive towards giving the administration leeway in negotiations before having House Democrats sign on.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Menendez, who had earlier sponsored the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Bill, was leading the effort with Graham, while Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and other key senators stayed off.

Regardless of the House-Senate differences, the message remains that an overwhelming majority of both chambers want to be involved in what a final deal with Iran will look like.

“Although the P5+1 process is focused on Iran’s nuclear program, we remain deeply concerned by Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism,” the House letter stated. “We want to work with you to address these concerns as part of a broader strategy of dealing with Iran.”

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