President Obama is trying to cement a deal to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but he may wind up clashing with Congress before he gets there. And his own party is half his problem.
That's because newly emboldened Republicans are making moves to ratchet up economic sanctions, even as the Obama administration and other countries are trying to deal with Iran in six-way talks. Many Democrats want a slightly softer approach, but are no less vehement about threatening Iran with more sanctions. They also want to have final say over the deal.
It could mean that any deal to curtail Iran's nuclear program – if it is even reached – could be undone if Congress doesn't like it. It also could see President Obama face an override if he tries to hold Congress off with a veto.
Tough economic sanctions are largely credited with bringing Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. Iran's currency, the rial, has depreciated 16 percent and plummeting oil prices have made the situation worse. An interim deal reached last year allowed Iran to sell a limited amount of oil on the world market. But administration officials insist the country remains highly motivated to make a deal that lifts the yoke of international sanctions.
Many lawmakers want to put the threat of even more sanctions on Iran if a deal is not reached by a June deadline. But Obama has warned that threat would violate a pledge for no more sanctions while talks are happening. Aside from alienating Iran, it could repel other countries whose cooperation is needed to make sanctions effective, Obama said.
“New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies … and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again,” Obama said in his State of the Union address. He followed that with a threat to veto any new sanctions connected to the talks.
Many lawmakers say they don't trust Iran to follow through on any commitments. Their basic message is: No deal is better than a bad deal.
"I think you're getting scammed, and I hope I'm dead wrong," Idaho Republican Sen. James Risch told Antony Blinken, the Deputy Secretary of State during a hearing on the deal in the Foreign Relations Committee this week.
Sen. Robert Menendez, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said he hopes a deal will succeed. But he added, "Iran needs to know that there will be consequences for failure - and that consequence will be additional sanctions."
Even Democratic liberals, usually closely allied with the White House, want action. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she'll introduce a bill along with conservative Republican and presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul, of Kentucky, to hit Iran with additional sanctions if negotiations fail.
Obama could, of course, veto any congressional efforts to vote down a deal or slap new sanctions on Iran. But he'll run into a roadblock later: Any move to permanently lift sanctions as part of a nuclear deal will need lawmakers' approval. And if Congress doesn't feel dealt in or opposes the deal, he might not get it.
Meanwhile, the divide between Congress and Obama over Iran was made more obvious than ever when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to address Congress in the late winter. The invitation was made – and accepted – without notifying the White House.
Boehner said he didn't intend the move as a slight, but his intentions were clear. Netanyahu is a sharp and outspoken critic of diplomatic efforts to reign in and monitor Iran's nuclear activity. So Boehner can make Obama look isolated--at least in the eyes of backers of Israel-- as the deal approaches. The New York Times called it a "new low" in Obama's relationship with the Israeli prime minister.
Todd Zwillich is Washington correspondent for The Takeaway from Public Radio International and WNYC. He's covered Washington and Capitol Hill for more than 15 years. Follow him on Twitter @toddzwillich.