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Congressional leaders cautious but accepting of Iran nuclear deal for now

Leading members of Congress cautiously greeted the news of the six-month nuclear deal with Iran announced Saturday night as even Republicans critical of President Barack Obama’s approach signaled a resigned acceptance of the accord.

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“This is in essence it, and the deal has been made,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R- Tenn., the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, implying that Congress really couldn’t undo the accord at this point.

Still, Corker warned that the Iranian regime “has consolidated their gains” and was now “spiking the football in the end zone” and claiming that it has the right to keep enriching uranium.

The accord will unfreeze some of Iran’s overseas assets and ease some trade sanctions in return for the Tehran regime allowing inspections of its nuclear facilities and halting some steps that could lead to a nuclear weapon.

“It looks like we've tacitly agreed that they will be enriching (uranium) for commercial purposes down the road,” Corker said. “So I think you're going to see on Capitol Hill … a bipartisan effort to try to make sure that this is not the final agreement.” Corker added, “this administration is big on announcements, very short on substance. We see that time and time again.” His comments were made in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

But Corker didn’t sound intent on immediately pressing for Congress to enact additional sanctions against Iran. Both the Senate and House of Representatives are off for the Thanksgiving holiday week.

Corker has introduced a bill to require Iran to comply with any interim deal and to meet a series of conditions for a final agreement before Obama could waive additional sanctions.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D- N.Y., said he was "disappointed" by the interim agreement "because it does not seem proportional. Iran simply freezes its nuclear capabilities while we reduce the sanctions.... This disproportionality...makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when we return in December."

But Obama warned Congress in his statement Saturday night to not try to pass any new sanctions, saying “now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions, because doing so would derail this promising first step, alienate us from our allies and risk unraveling the coalition that enabled our sanctions to be enforced in the first place.”

Senate Relations Committee chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D- N.J. signaled in a statement Sunday that the Senate is likely to “provide for a six month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran,” even though sanctions would be “immediately available should the talks falter or Iran fail to implement or breach the interim agreement.”

Rep. Elliot Engel, D- N.Y., the senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a strong supporter of Israel which has been sharply critical of the deal, said the accord “makes it very difficult to continue the sanctions” against Iran and indicated that Congress was unlikely to pass new sanctions at this point.

He noted that an Iran sanctions bill was passed by The House in July by a vote of 400 to 20, but the New York Democrat said, “It’s difficult for the Senate to do sanctions now” now that the Obama administration has entered into a six-month deal with Iran.

“It’s disappointing to me that Iran is still going to be allowed to enrich (uranium) while they’re talking. I would have thought that that should be a prerequisite to any kind of talks,” Engel said.

But he added, “The agreement is here and we have to make it work.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R- Va., said the interim deal was a mistake because it “explicitly and dangerously recognizes that Iran will be allowed to enrich uranium.”

House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement Sunday that unless Obama and his international partners press ahead to a final accord that dismantles Iran’s uranium and plutonium programs, then “we will look back on the interim deal as a remarkably clever Iranian move to dismantle the international sanctions regime” while maintaining its ability to pursue nuclear weapons.

Obama administration allies on Congress were wary but supportive in their reactions.

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called the deal “realistic” and “practical.”

He said, “There is no harm in testing Iran's willingness because a freeze and a partial roll-back of Iran's nuclear energy activities is a bigger plus for us and the world than the release of $7 billion to Iran from its own assets, particularly since twice that amount of Iran's oil revenue will be added to Iran's frozen asset pile” during the six-month period that the accord covers.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D- Md., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that “progress must be made during the next six months to have a more permanent elimination of Iran's capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. If not, the sanctions are re-imposed. And I think Congress will be watching this very closely…. We will not stand by and just let this be the final deal.”

House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R- Mich., said on CNN’s State of the Union, “We have just rewarded very bad and dangerous behavior. Think about what this agreement does. It says ‘you can continue to enrich.’ That’s what the Iranians believe and they have made no changes – no changes -- in the development of their nuclear weapon program….”

But Rogers’s statement conflicted in some ways with what Kerry announced in Geneva in the wee small hours of Sunday morning: that the Iranian government had agreed to “dilute or convert its entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium.”

To make a nuclear weapon from uranium, an enrichment level of 20 percent or greater is necessary.

Kerry also said Iran agreed to not commission or fuel the unfinished Arak plutonium reactor “that if it became operational would provide Iran with an alternative plutonium path to a nuclear weapon.”

In a statement early Sunday morning, Sen. Marco Rubio, R - Fla., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a potential contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, blasted the agreement.

Rubio argued that it “makes a nuclear Iran more likely. There is now an even more urgent need for Congress to increase sanctions until Iran completely abandons its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.”

In his press conference in Geneva, Kerry noted that there was “a midterm election obviously” coming up next year and that while some in Congress might push for enacting additional sanctions, “the president obviously has a possibility of a veto.”

Kerry added, “I don’t think it should come to that. We don’t want it to come to that…. I believe Congress will see the wisdom of pursuing this.” He explained that the sanctions against Iran weren’t an end in themselves. “The goal of the sanctions was always to have a negotiation. And that is precisely what is now taking place” with the goal of a final agreement "that guarantees the peacefulness of Iran’s nuclear program.”