Key White House allies on Capitol Hill and throughout the Middle East appeared to be on a collision course with the Obama administration Friday as lawmakers and world leaders waited for details about what could be an imminent nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran.
Iran and six world powers are negotiating a deal that could see a partial suspension of the West's devastating economic sanctions in exchange for unspecified Iranian concessions that would likely include a temporary halt to its uranium enrichment efforts. White House officials insist that most of the punitive measures on Iran's oil and banking sectors would remain in place until Tehran agreed to permanent limits on its nuclear program designed to ensure Iran couldn't continue its push for a nuclear weapon. For many in Congress, that isn't enough.
"The United States must remain firm against Iran and should not lift any sanctions until the the world can verify that the ayatollah has fully dismantled his country's nuclear weapons program," Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told The Cable.
Secretary of State John Kerry stressed Friday that the two sides hadn't finalized the terms of an initial, short-term agreement, but signs mounted throughout the day that a deal could be close. The foreign ministers of Russia and China, two of Iran's most important diplomatic supporters, were expected to arrive in Geneva Saturday, potentially to be on hand for a formal announcement of the agreement.
The details of the agreement hadn't leaked out as of late Friday. When the specifics do come, however, expect some fireworks. Israel has already bashed the administration in unusually pointed terms, and diplomats from across the Persian Gulf have begun to privately express their fury and dismay. Closer to home, Republican and Democratic hawks are poised to come out swinging.
"You're going to see the dam break loose when the details of this come out," Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Il), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable. "The White House is going to take a lot of friendly fire."
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), who has been generally supportive of the administration's diplomatic push, raised concern about how far the administration might go. "I am deeply troubled by reports that such an agreement may not require Tehran to halt its enrichment efforts," he said. "In addition, I forcefully reject any notion that Iran has a ‘right' to enrichment, a view which the administration has publicly articulated on numerous occasions."
Texas Senator Ted Cruz slammed the reported deal as "dangerous for America."
"It appears that this 'deal' does not require Iran to dismantle even a single centrifuge or turn over even a single pound of enriched uranium," he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, a restless Senate Banking Committee is poised to move ahead with a new package of sanctions on Iran. The committee's chairman, Tim Johnson, told Reuters that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has approved the markup, or debate, of the bill. However, Reid said the bill would not move to the Senate floor for a vote until the Geneva meeting is over.
The blowback from the Middle East will likely be just as fierce. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has always had a chilly relationship with Obama, has spent the past two days attacking the administration in unusually pointed terms. On Thursday, he called the pending agreement the "deal of the century for Iran." On Friday, Netanyahu canceled a planned joint press conference with Kerry, almost certainly to avoid a public disagreement with a high-ranking U.S. officials.
Once Kerry left for Geneva, however, Netanyahu cut loose.
"I reminded him of his own words, that it is better not to reach a deal then to reach a bad deal," Netanyahu said. "The proposal being discussed now is a bad deal, a very bad deal. Iran is not asked to dismantle even one centrifuge, but the international community is easing sanctions on Iran for the first time in many years."
Netanyahu was referring to one of the biggest specific points of disagreement between Israel and the U.S. Jerusalem wants Iran to stop enriching any uranium and to reduce its existing stockpiles of uranium that has been enriched to near-weapons grade 20 percent purity. The U.S. seems poised to accept a deal under which would Tehran would cease enriching uranium above 5 percent, a level of purity far below what would be needed to build a nuclear warhead, but retain its centrifuges and other equipment enrichment.
Other Middle Eastern allies are just as alarmed by the prospects of an Iranian nuclear deal, even if its limited in duration and scope. Saudi Arabian leaders haven't been nearly as vocal as Netanyahu, but diplomats from the region say they have privately told the administration that they think the deal is too favorable to Iran and doesn't do enough to constrain Tehran's nuclear ambitions. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait share those concerns, these diplomats said.
For now, though, Persian Gulf leaders are leaving Netanyahu make the public case against the deal while they quietly fume. In part, that's because of a recognition of Netanyahu's strong relationships with powerful lawmakers from both parties.
One of Netanyahu's allies is staunchly pro-Israel Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez has been instrumental in pushing tougher Iran sanctions through the Senate, but he has yet to criticize the current talks or to issue a preemptive attack against the potential deal. "The stand down of Menendez regarding sanctions is notable," said a committee aide, referring to Menendez's quiet posture. "Kicking the can down the road undermines the work he's done over the years to force a change in behavior."