Up against a self-imposed deadline, the White House resubmitted the U.S.-Russia civilian nuclear agreement to Congress Tuesday and made their case for Congress to allow the deal to go through.
The administration sees the deal as a carrot which can be used to entice Russia to sign on to tough sanctions against Iran at the U.N. But for Iran critics on Capitol Hill, they see the White House's action this week as putting the cart before the horse and are skeptical that the agreement can be implemented under current conditions.
The Bush administration had submitted the agreement back in 2008, but withdrew it after to Russia-Georgia war. But President Obama said today he no longer thought that should be an issue and that lawmakers should also not block the deal due to Russia's stance regarding Iran.
"After review of the situation and of the NPAS and classified annex, I have concluded: (1) that the situation in Georgia need no longer be considered an obstacle to proceeding with the proposed Agreement; and (2) that the level and scope of U.S.-Russia cooperation on Iran are sufficient to justify resubmitting the proposed Agreement to the Congress," Obama wrote in the transmittal letter (pdf).
Some senators, such as Senate Foreign Relations ranking Republican Richard Lugar, R-IN, don't agree that the Russia-Georgia situation is stable or that Russia has lived up to its obligations following the conflict.
But the real sticking point will be Iran, because the current Iran sanctions bill making its way through Congress has some language that could thwart implementation of the deal.
Congress has 90 days to pass a law blocking the deal, or it goes into effect, and they must be days when Congress is in continuous session. Since Congress is expected to recess around August 12, this week was the last chance the administration to submit it without that deadline slipping into next year.
So the White House is betting that Congress will let the deal go through rather than mount a time-consuming campaign to stop it. But according to the House version of the Iran sanctions bill, no nuclear agreement can be carried out with a country that is providing any nuclear or advanced missile technology to Iran.
That bill passed the House 412-12.
"Because they got this up here on May 11, they may be able to get it into force, but they are going to have a lot of trouble implementing it," one senior GOP aide explained.
Unless the president is able to determine what we don't think he will be able to determine, that Russia has stopped providing any nuclear or missile assistance to Iran, it won't be able to carry out the deal.
Of course, that Iran sanctions bill is currently in conference, meaning it could be changed before it gets to the president's desk. That would require House Foreign Affairs chairman Howard Berman, D-CA, to back off the language.
Those opposed to the deal are also pointing to a report by the Government Accountability Office, which said that the Bush administration had fallen short in its responsibility to do the research in advance to justify the agreement.
"We identified weaknesses in the process State used to ensure interagency consultation during the development of the classified NPAS annex that accompanied the U.S.-Russia 123 agreement, including a lack of formal guidelines, failure of NRC to analyze the final version of the annex prior to the Commissions vote on the agreement, and concerns with the consultative process involving the intelligence community," the GAO said.
UPDATE: Tuesday afternoon Berman released this luke-warm statement about the agreement:
At a time when Iran is actively seeking to develop a nuclear weapons
capability, establishing new nuclear cooperation agreements with other
nations is far from the most critical nonproliferation issue. Rather,
the international community, especially all members of the U.N.
Security Council, should be focusing their efforts on meaningful action
to prevent Iran from obtaining weapons that could have a devastating
impact. At the appropriate time, we will examine the agreement more