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Senate OKs Congressional Oversight Of Iran Nuclear Deal

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Think of this as an example of the arts of politics. The U.S. Senate almost unanimously approved a bill to review any final nuclear deal between the United States and Iran. The vote was 98-1. It was embraced by lawmakers who say they hope the Iran deal fails. It was also embraced by lawmakers who hope the deal will succeed. It even passed with the approval of President Obama, who had previously resisted any such measure. The lawmakers who worked this out include our next guest, Senator Ben Cardin. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a senator from Maryland. Senator, welcome to the program.

SENATOR BEN CARDIN: It's a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Are you among those who are hoping the Iran deal succeeds?

CARDIN: Oh, absolutely. And I think almost everyone in the Senate hopes that we an agreement - a strong agreement - that prevents Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state. That's - thus far, the best process to go forward would be a negotiated agreement.

INSKEEP: I'm not sure that that's true, Senator Cardin. I know that everyone hopes Iran does not get nuclear weapons. But there are a number of Republican senators who have said this is a bad deal, and they hope it fails somehow.

CARDIN: I think there are many senators on the - particularly on the Republican side, who don't believe the president can negotiate a strong enough agreement. But I think they still would prefer an agreement over the other alternatives. The other alternatives, which basically are military, to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state, are not a prospect that we hope we have to go through.

INSKEEP: OK, so the idea here is sometime later this year, hopefully by June 30, the U.S., its allies and Iran come to a final conclusion. Then there's a waiting period before they would go into effect, where Congress would vote on this. How exactly would this work? And how would it not sink the deal?

CARDIN: Well, if the administration is successful in negotiating a final agreement with Iran, with our negotiating partners, he would submit it to Congress. We would have a 30-day review period - a maximum of 30 day review period - during which time there could be no further relief given to Iran for sanctions...

INSKEEP: Right.

CARDIN: While Congress is reviewing. Congress does not need to take action. Congress could take action. It could approve it, could disapprove it, could act on the sanctions. And the reason for the review is that Congress is the entity that imposed the sanctions, and only Congress can permanently change or remove the sanctions. So it's important that Congress have an orderly way to review the legislation. As you pointed out in the beginning, it's very unusual on such a controversial issue to get the type of majorities that we got in the United States Senate. And I think the American people look today and say, gee, maybe the system can work. Democrats and Republicans can work together. And I was very proud of the vote yesterday.

INSKEEP: I guess we should say it's a little different than, say, approving a treaty, where the treaty doesn't take effect unless the Senate votes yes. In this case, as I understand it - tell me if I'm wrong here - the default is if President Obama has signed off on the deal, the deal is approved. Congress would have to vote - a majority would have to vote to disapprove it. Is that correct?

CARDIN: That's correct. There's no requirement for congressional action for the agreement to go into effect. And let me point out, this is a very important provision because presidents enter into agreements all the time on behalf of the United States. And Congress does not have a role in having to approve that. This agreement's different in that Congress imposed the sanctions. So even if the administration enters into an agreement that requires Congress to change the sanction regime, only Congress can do that. The administration can't do that just by the agreement.

INSKEEP: OK, so two vital questions remain then, Senator Cardin. One is this. Republican presidential candidates - including some who, by the way, are in the Senate - have been saying that they, if they're elected president, would reverse the Iran deal right away, maybe on day one. So suppose that your process goes through and Congress does not reject the deal. Is it somehow more firmly in place? Could the next president still reverse it on day one?

CARDIN: I don't think so. And the reason I say that is if we are successful in negotiating an agreement with Iran and our negotiating partners, there will be international support for this. It'll be international actions that will have taken place, including within the United Nations. And there will be monitors in place. And we'll have a track record. And we'll be able to see whether Iran is complying with the agreement or not. So by the time the next administration takes office, there's going to be a different playing field here - and we hope one in which Iran is moving to giving up its nuclear weapon program altogether. So I think you need to take a look at where we are. There are many who suggested when President Obama started these negotiations that are Iran would not live up to the interim framework agreements. Iran has. Today, Iran is not as close as they were six months ago to a nuclear weapon. They backed off.

INSKEEP: Right.

CARDIN: And the sanction regime has remained in effect. Many said that would not be possible. So I think we need to see what happens during the next two years. And the next administration will have an opportunity to weigh in depending on the circumstances on the ground.

INSKEEP: Well that's the final question. In just a few words, it sounds like you're saying the next president could reverse this deal still. But you're hoping the world will have changed in a way that makes that a pointless option.

CARDIN: We want to make sure Iran does not become a nuclear weapon state. And we believe the best way to do that is through continued pressure on Iran and an effective agreement that allows us to inspect and take action if Iran cheats.

INSKEEP: Senator Cardin, it's been a pleasure talking with you.

CARDIN: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Ben Cardin is a Democrat from Maryland and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.