Republicans target U.N. arms embargo rollback in bid to derail Iran deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans on Thursday honed their attack plan against President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal in Congress, targeting part of the pact that calls for eventually rolling back a U.N. arms embargo on Tehran.

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) speaks about an Iran nuclear deal during his weekly press briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington July 9, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Opponents of the landmark nuclear agreement hope to use the arms embargo issue, one of the final obstacles to the accord sealed in Vienna on Tuesday between Iran and six world powers, to draw some of Obama’s wavering Democrats into helping to derail it.

“It blows my mind that the administration would agree to lift the arms and missile bans,” John Boehner, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the top Republican in Congress, told reporters.

But even as Republicans who control Congress sharpened their criticism, Obama’s top aides stepped up their defense of the historic deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Vice President Joe Biden met Democrats on Capitol Hill for the second day in a row to make the administration’s case.

Participants said much of the questioning focused on a final compromise that Obama agreed to for lifting the United Nations ban on Iran after five years for conventional weapons and eight years for ballistic missile technology.

“It’s hard for us to accept it, so we just want to take a look at it,” said Senator Ben Cardin, top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Obama says the deal is the only alternative to Iran moving forward on developing a nuclear weapon, risking more war in the Middle East. Tehran has denied seeking a bomb.

Critics of the broader deal say easing sanctions will empower Iran financially to expand its influence in the Middle East in the near term. But many lawmakers are just as worried that Tehran’s access to advanced arms – even years down the line – would give it even greater ability to fuel regional sectarian strife and threaten U.S. ally Israel.

With Congress due to begin a 60-day review of the Iran deal, Republicans hope that misgivings expressed earlier by top Pentagon officials when the arms embargo issue was still under negotiation would give them further leverage with Democrats.

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional hearing last week: “Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.”

Obama, at a news conference on Wednesday, shrugged off such concerns, saying that the U.S. arms embargo would remain in effect and that the United States and its partners would still have other ways of preventing Iran from acquiring and sending weapons to militant groups.

While critics accused the United States of caving on a last-minute Iranian demands in order to salvage Obama’s legacy achievement, Wendy Sherman, a key U.S. negotiator, said the American team always knew it would have to be resolved at the end of the talks. Russia and China, two of the world powers involved, had taken Iran’s side and pushed for the arms embargo to be lifted.

She insisted that while Iran wanted an immediate lifting of the embargo, the United States won a “very tough” bargain in stretching it out for years.

With a U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution considered likely as early as next week, the Republican chairs of the House Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security Committees have sent a letter to Obama asking him to delay the vote.

The embargo issue was the final major holdup before a deal was sealed.

On July 8, Obama, under pressure from critics who accused him of giving too much ground, held a video conference with his team in Vienna in which he “essentially rejected the deal that was on the table”, in part because he didn’t like the how fast the U.N. embargo would be removed, a White House official said.

The compromise that ultimately won Obama’s approval extended that timetable.

Republicans would need the support of dozens of Democrats to sustain a “resolution of disapproval” that could cripple a deal. But the odds are considered slim that they could muster enough support to overrule an Obama veto.

Additional reporting by David Alexander, Phil Stewart, and Michelle Nichols; Editing by Stuart Grudgings