Obama seals Iran deal win as Senate Democrats find 34 votes

WASHINGTON (AP) — Overcoming ferocious opposition, President Barack Obama secured a legacy-defining foreign policy victory Wednesday as Senate Democrats clinched the 34 necessary votes to ensure the Iran nuclear agreement survives in Congress.

The decisive commitment came from Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, who is retiring next year after three decades in the Senate. In a statement she said "no deal is perfect, especially one negotiated with the Iranian regime." But she called the pact "the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb."

Supporters now have the votes in hand to uphold Obama's veto, if one becomes necessary, of a resolution of disapproval Republicans are trying to pass this month. GOP lawmakers who control the House and Senate ardently oppose the agreement, which curbs Iran's nuclear program in exchange for hundreds of billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions.

In Philadelphia, Secretary of State John Kerry defended the deal.

'The United States and the international community will be monitoring Iran non-stop. And you can bet that if we see something, we will do something," Kerry said in a speech Wednesday.

"Rejecting this agreement would not be sending a signal of resolve to Iran, it would be broadcasting a message so puzzling that most people across the globe would find it impossible to comprehend," he told lawmakers and civic leaders at the National Constitution Center. His speech was carried live on Iranian television, an unusual occurrence.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the growing support a validation of Obama's effort to "make sure that every member of the Senate understands exactly what's included in the agreement."

The White House says Iran already has two facilities that have been enriching and stockpiling uranium, which can be used for fuel and for weapons.

The deal would lift economic sanctions in return for Iran allowing inspections, reducing its uranium stockpiles by 98-percent, and reducing the number of centrifuges.

Matthew Kroenig, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University and author of "A Time to Attack: the Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat" says there are risks on both sides of the Iran deal debate.

"The best estimates are if the Supreme Leader made a dash to nuclear capabilities, he would have enough material for a first bomb in 2-3 months so that's too close for comfort," Kroenig said. "I think if Iran cheats, we'll catch them. My concern is more what happens next and do we have tools in place to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons if they decide to cheat."

The deal sets Iran back so that it is at least a year away from being able to produce enough nuclear material for a weapon, before the restrictions ease after a decade.

Bay Area Democrat Congressman Mark DeSaunier held a town hall meeting in Orinda Wednesday and says he's heard passionate support from voters on both sides. He is leaning toward supporting the Iran deal.

"The difficulties I have with it is it's hard to trust an Iranian regime that screams death to America," DeSaunier said, "Having said that I think the protections that the administration has negotiated are real."

Professor Kroenig says there is concern that the Iran deal could encourage other countries to develop nuclear weapons.

"I was in Seoul, South Korea a couple weeks ago and officials there were saying if you trust Iran with these capabilities, why don't you trust us a close ally? So I do worry this could set a precedent," Kroenig said.

For all the geopolitical ramifications, the debate in the U.S. has often seemed more about domestic partisan politics over a resolution that, on its own, wouldn't be able to reverse a multi-country agreement already blessed by the United Nations. 

A vote of disapproval, however, could signal Congress' readiness to introduce new sanctions at the risk of causing Tehran - and other governments - to abandon the accord and blame the U.S. for the failure.

Among American lawmakers, the debate has broken along party lines. Republicans, defending their congressional majorities and aiming for the White House in next year's elections, have denounced the deal in apocalyptic terms. The bulk of Democrats have rushed to the president's defense.

Next week, Donald Trump and fellow presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz will rally outside the Capitol against the agreement, as lawmakers return from a five-week recess to begin debating it. Several GOP presidential hopefuls issued statements Wednesday vowing to undo the agreement if they are elected. "When I'm president of the United States, we will re-impose those sanctions on day one," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said.

"Irrespective of where this ends up, I'm confident that the majority of the House and Senate are going to reject this deal," said Sen. Rubio.

Thousands of opponents attended an afternoon rally in New York City Wednesday, where another presidential candidate Senator Lindsey Graham spoke.

"We're gonna stop it over time. Don't quit. We're gonna have more votes. This is not over," said Sen. Graham.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., grudgingly acknowledged that his side would not be able to block the deal after Obama, in his words, secured "the tepid, restricted and partisan support of one-third of one house of Congress." McConnell spared the accord no criticism, saying it leaves Iran "with a threshold nuclear capability."

Israel also has railed against the deal, arguing that its conditions would keep Iran perilously close to developing nuclear weapons while enriching a government that has funded anti-U.S. and anti-Israel militants throughout the Middle East.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had personally lobbied U.S. lawmakers to block the pact, will continue fighting the agreement, an Israeli official said, while a spokesman for the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC said his group also would seek to build further opposition.

In the House, the disapproval resolution is certain to pass by a wide margin when it comes to a vote next week. But in a letter to fellow Democrats Wednesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she has the votes to back up an Obama veto.

Supporters of the deal are seeking a bigger victory in the Senate. If they can assemble 41 votes in favor, they'd be able to block the disapproval resolution from passing at all, sparing Obama the embarrassment of having to veto it. They need seven of the remaining 10 undeclared Democrats to back the agreement, though several in this group could still come out in opposition.

Either way, Obama has succeeded in selling a package that prompted immediate and intense opposition from Republicans in the days after it was concluded on July 14 by Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Millions were spent lobbying against the pact. Polls registered significant public distrust.

But none of the skepticism translated into enough Democratic opposition to threaten the deal, partly resulting from the upside-down voting process involved.

Because the Obama administration didn't consider it a treaty, ratification wasn't dependent on two-thirds approval in the Senate. Instead, Republicans and Democrats agreed on a process that essentially allowed the pact to stand if it gained the support of just one-third of lawmakers in either chamber, since two-thirds majorities in both would be needed to override a veto of the disapproval resolution.

Only two Senate Democrats, Chuck Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, have announced their opposition so far.