Republican presidential contenders lined up on Tuesday to denounce President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, with a number of candidates threatening to block it in Congress or undo it in the White House themselves if elected.
In a flurry of statements, GOP hopefuls warned Iran would break its promise not to pursue a bomb and that the country's leaders would use their new found economic freedom to wreak havoc across the Middle East.
“President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands, holds Americans hostage, and has consistently violated every agreement it ever signed,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in one typical statement.
An independent group supporting Rubio released an ad trashing the deal. “Congress can stop it,” the ad from the Conservative Solutions Project goes. “Marco Rubio is leading the fight… Tell your senators to join Marco Rubio and defeat Obama’s deal with Iran.”
Jeb Bush outlined his objections in a separate statement. "This isn’t diplomacy – it is appeasement,” the former Florida governor said.
Among the complaints from Bush and other Republicans: The agreement’s gradual easing of some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear capacity over 10 to 15 years, its lack of unfettered access to suspected Iranian nuclear sites without exceptions, and its failure to tackle issues unrelated to Iran’s nuclear potential such as human rights abuses at home and support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah abroad.
A number of GOPers have made the case that the White House erred by opening negotiations at all rather than waiting for sanctions to damage Iran’s economy further and hopefully spur its leaders to make greater concessions.
"You know the Iranians are going to cheat," Donald Trump told NBC News in an interview on Tuesday. "They're great negotiators and you know they're going to cheat."
“He should have walked away,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said in a statement urging Congress to reject the agreement.
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have argued that the nuclear issue was too important to risk derailing over separate concerns and that its inspections would be robust enough to detect violations. Nor did they have the only say in sanctions and the final contours of a compromise with Iran – they also had to balance concerns from rivals like China and Russia as well as allies France, Germany, and the United Kingdom engaged in the talks.
The news of an Iran deal is almost perfectly designed to ignite a furious response among Republican hopefuls who frequently deride Obama as too willing to pursue diplomacy with rival countries and too dismissive of Israel’s concerns. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who urged American lawmakers to reject Iran’s proposals before a joint session of Congress in March, called the deal “a bad mistake of historic proportions.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called the deal “a fundamental betrayal of the security of the United States and of our closest allies, first and foremost Israel."
Throw in a presidential campaign in which the Democratic frontrunner is Obama’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who left office before her successor John Kerry initiated advanced talks with Iran but is tentatively supportive of the results, and you have a formula for an issue that will figure prominently in the primaries and general election alike.
“This deal would not have happened without Hillary Clinton, who as Secretary of State, put things in motion,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. “She owes America an explanation: Why did she support negotiations that empowered Iran, and what would she do to prevent Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon?”
Priebus wasn’t the only Republican to mention Clinton by name.
"While Secretary Clinton has been the architect of President Obama's foreign policy, she can do the right thing and prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and oppose this deal,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement.
Besides Clinton, news of an agreement could put Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in conservative crosshairs as well. The libertarian movement championed by Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul, is broadly opposed to conflict with Iran and Paul has struggled to balance those views with those of more traditional GOP hawks. In the past he has encouraged negotiations and, before he was elected, even chastised members of his party for overhyping the threat from Iran. More recently, however, he joined 46 of his Senate colleagues in signing a letter by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) warning Iranian leaders that Congress could overturn an agreement.
"The deal is bad because 1) sanctions relief precedes evidence of compliance 2) Iran is left with significant nuclear capacity," Paul tweeted late Tuesday. "It also lifts the ban on selling advanced weapons to Iran. Better to keep the interim agreement in place instead of accepting a bad deal."
The biggest policy question going forward in the GOP primaries is whether candidates will move from merely criticizing the deal to pledging to undo it and reinstitute or expand sanctions, a move that could alienate the world powers who backed the agreement and push Iran to renounce restrictions on its nuclear capabilities.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who called the deal “one of America's worst diplomatic failures” in a statement Tuesday, has indicated he would back out of a deal and called on Clinton and Republican candidates to follow his lead.
“Looking ahead, we need to terminate the bad deal with Iran on the very first day in office, put in place crippling economic sanctions and convince our allies to do exactly the same thing,” Walker said in a speech announcing his presidential run on Monday.
Rubio didn’t go quite as far as Walker’s Day One pledge, but also indicated his willingness to backtrack on the deal.
“Failure by the president to obtain congressional support will tell the Iranians and the world that this is Barack Obama's deal, not an agreement with lasting support from the United States,” Rubio said. “It will then be left to the next president to return us to a position of American strength and re-impose sanctions on this despicable regime until it is truly willing to abandon its nuclear ambitions and is no longer a threat to international security.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tweeted that he “will stand with Israel and keep all options on the table, including military force, to topple the terrorist Iranian regime."
Bush has said in the past he would cancel a deal “if it's in the security interests of the United States,” but did not explicitly indicate he would backtrack on the new agreement in his statement on Tuesday.
Congress still must review the agreement under legislation passed earlier this year and many Democrats are skeptical of talks as well, which poses a challenge for Obama as he looks to corral enough votes to withstand a presidential veto.