Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) became the 34th senator to support the Iran nuclear agreement, which means President Obama has the votes to sustain his promised veto of any legislation that would attempt to scuttle the deal. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark)
President Obama on Wednesday was handed a major foreign policy victory after securing enough votes in the Senate to preserve the nuclear deal with Iran, which has come under intense criticism from Republicans and some Democrats.
The agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, struck by international negotiators in Vienna in July, was the subject of an intense lobbying campaign in recent weeks by both the administration and the deal’s opponents in advance of an expected vote as early as next week on a resolution to block the deal’s implementation.
But Sen. Barbara A, Mikulski (D-Md.) on Wednesday morning said she will back the agreement, making her the 34th senator to pledge support for the Iran deal in the Senate. This means that opponents will not be able to collect the two-thirds supermajority vote needed to override Obama’s promised veto of any legislative attempt to dismantle the nuclear pact.
“No deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime. I have concluded that this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb,” Mikulski said in a statement explaining why she is backing the deal.
Her support follows weeks of intense lobbying on both sides and serves as a defeat for deal detractors, despite the fact that majorities in both the Republican-led House and Senate will likely vote to oppose the Iran agreement later this month.
Congress secured an unorthodox role for itself in the negotiations earlier this year by passing legislation demanding a chance for lawmakers to review the accord that the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany were negotiating with Iran to rein in Tehran’s nuclear development program. The deal they struck trades promises from Iran to mothball centrifuges, cut enriched-uranium stockpiles and accept tight oversight in exchange for a stage-by-stage lifting of sanctions that have hamstrung the Iranian economy.
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Since the deal was reached in July, critics have complained that it doesn’t do enough to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and, at best, only delays its pathway to becoming an armed nuclear state. Even those on the fence have openly worried that Iran might funnel some of the money that gets pumped back into its economy after sanctions are lifted into nefarious activities, including funding groups that pose a direct threat to Israel.
“The only reason the Ayatollah and his henchmen aren’t dancing in the streets of Tehran is they don’t believe in dancing,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who is also running for president, said in a statement following Mikulski’s announcement.
But Obama and his proxies have argued that the deal is the best agreement they could have secured, that there is no alternative to it but war with Iran and that those angling to rip up the current deal and call Iran back to the negotiating table do not have a viable alternative.
So far, Obama’s argument has swayed only Democrats — no Republicans have come out to support the deal. And politically, the splits forming around the agreement in Congress appear to be reflected throughout the country. While polls show that a majority of Americans oppose the deal, a strong majority of Democrats support it and a strong majority of Republicans oppose it.
The Iran deal has become a 2016 campaign issue as well, with candidates going after each other and casting it as an indication of how strongly they support Israel.
In that environment, the prospect of becoming Senator No. 34 — the deal-clinching senator — was daunting for some, with campaign ads all but guaranteed to be rolled out against the lawmaker who took that key spot. Mikulski, however, is retiring at the end of her term next year and does not need to worry about political blowback.
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Her vote now potentially clears the way for other undecided senators to support the deal. There are 10 Democrats who remain undeclared — if seven more of those senators vote for the deal, Obama might not need to pick up his veto pen at all. If 41 senators support the agreement, deal backers could successfully filibuster the resolution of disapproval and the pact would stand.
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In an effort to gain more support, Secretary of State John F. Kerry sent letters to the Senate and House Wednesday vowing that the Obama administration would strengthen security cooperation with Israel and the nations of the Persian Gulf to cope with the impact of the Iran deal.
In the letter, he promised that Washington would provide both Israel and the Gulf countries with enough aid to counter and protect themselves from Iran’s expansionist ambitions in the region.
Kerry described Israel’s security as “sacrosanct,” and enumerated some of the military aid totaling billions of dollars a year that the United States provides Israel for defense and security. He said the United States and Israel were working on a Memo of Understanding that would “cement for the next decade our unprecedented levels of military assistance.”
Kerry said that Israel will be the only country in the region to get the advanced F-35 fighter aircraft next year. He said the administration is prepared to increase funds to develop newer systems like the Arrow-3 and David’s Sling. He also proposed collaborating with Israel on “tunnel detection and mapping technologies to provide Israel new capabilities to detect and destroy [terrorist] tunnels before they could be used to threaten Israeli civilians.” Kerry said Obama had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already about working together to confront conventional and asymmetric threats.
The letter was delivered to Congress as Kerry spoke in Philadelphia in defense of the Iran agreement in a speech that was carried live on Iranian television.
“Rejecting this agreement would not be sending a signal of resolve to Iran, it would be broadcasting a message so puzzling that most people across the globe would find it impossible to comprehend,” Kerry said in his speech at the National Constitution Center.
“It’s hard to conceive of a quicker or more self-destructive blow to our nation’s credibility and leadership,” he added, “not only with respect to this one issue, but across the board, economically, politically, militarily, even morally. We would pay an immeasurable price for this unilateral reversal.”
On Friday, Obama will hold talks in the White House with Saudi King Salman in his first visit to the United States since ascending the throne in January after King Abdullah died.
In Israel, the immediate reaction was muted.
Israeli news media cast Mikulski’s announcement as a clear loss for Netanyahu, who has spent years warning that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and who took the extraordinary step of siding with Republicans and directly confronting the American president in a speech before Congress.
One senior Israeli official close to Netanyahu said, “Whatever is going on in Congress does not change the dangers facing the Middle East from the agreement as it has been currently presented.”
The official said that Israel never said it would win its case, but that it was important to make one.
A second Israel official, who briefed reporters but declined to have his name used, said “a solid majority in Congress and among the American people” agree with Netanyahu’s assertion that the deal is a bad one.
The official said that even if the deal is passed, the strong opposition to the pact will be reflected in U.S. policy toward Iran and the Middle East.
“The prime minister clarified to Congress in March that it was his duty to present Israel’s concerns regarding the deal with Iran to Americans and their representatives,” said the official.
William Booth contributed to this story
Karoun Demirjian covers defense and foreign policy and was previously a correspondent based in the Post’s bureau in Moscow, Russia. Before that, she reported for the Las Vegas Sun as its Washington Correspondent, the Associated Press in Jerusalem, the Chicago Tribune, Congressional Quarterly, and worked at NPR.
Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.