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Congressional delegates mull Iran nuclear deal

John Hoeven1 / 3
Heidi Heitkamp2 / 3
Ernest Moniz3 / 3

A month after it was reached, some members of the North Dakota and Minnesota congressional delegations are still mulling whether to support the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting international sanctions.

But some, such as Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., have already made a decision. He’ll vote against the agreement when Congress reconvenes in September.

“All along I’ve believed our best chance to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon is strong sanctions until they absolutely agree to give up their nuclear program with anywhere, anytime inspections,” Hoeven told the Herald, adding he came to his decision after reviewing the agreement and participating in briefings.

Iran and six other countries led by the United States reached a deal in mid-July that would limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities. In return, sanctions against the country would be relieved.

Congress is set to vote on the deal in September after members return from their August recess.

In the meantime, the Obama administration has tried to rally congressional support for the agreement. In a phone interview Friday with the Herald, Energy Secretary and negotiator of the deal Ernest Moniz argued the “status quo” of continued sanctions against Iran would not be as effective without international support and defended the agreement as providing “first-of-a-kind” measures to verify the country is not developing a nuclear weapon.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Moniz said. “There is no trust here. This is completely based upon this system of constraints on what they do and verification of what they do and what we suspect they might be doing.”

Where they stand

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., is opposed to the deal. Minnesota’s two Democratic senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, already have said they’ll support the White House. Among the undecided are Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

“I consider this to be a very serious decision,” Heitkamp said Friday. “We’re going to use the time that we have to analyze the implications of this agreement and review what we think is in the best interest of the people of this country and our allies in the region.”

Heitkamp said one of her biggest considerations is whether the U.S. will be better off with or without the deal. Ultimately, her main goal is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, she said.

Hoeven said he believes the House and Senate will vote against the deal but added it’s not likely opponents will have enough votes to override a presidential veto.

“It’s hard to say,” he said.

The deal

The agreement requires Iran to never “seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” It must reduce its number of centrifuges for the next 10 years as well as lower its stockpile of uranium by 98 percent while keeping its enrichment level “significantly below” what the White House says is needed to develop a nuclear weapon.

It also requires Iran not to build any heavy water reactors for 15 years. The Obama administration says the deal increases Iran’s “breakout time,” or time needed to develop a nuclear weapon, from two or three months to a year or more.

“Today Iran is a so-called nuclear threshold state,” Moniz said. “They’re a couple months away, if they choose, to make the material needed for a first nuclear weapon.”

The deal also provides an inspection of a suspected nuclear site would take place within 24 days. Moniz said even if inspectors were prevented from accessing the site for the full time period, they still would be able to detect nuclear material.

An embargo against Iran for conventional weapons would be lifted within five years, and the same would happen to missile restrictions within eight years. The White House also estimates Iran will be able to access around $50 billion in foreign reserves as part of sanctions relief, which some fear it will use to fund terrorist activity in the region.

“These sanctions make it harder for Iran to have the resources to continue to sponsor terrorism,” Hoeven said.


The agreement has attracted criticism from congressional Republicans and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told ABC News the deal was a “grave mistake” that puts his and other countries in the region in danger.

Cramer said the lack of “anytime, anywhere” inspections and the arms embargo relief were among his concerns. The latter point “makes the most dangerous player in the Middle East all that much more dangerous,” Cramer said.

“I think we negotiated from a position of weakness,” he said, adding the Obama administration’s “zeal for a deal was greater than our zest for peace.”

Hoeven said the Obama administration should “fully impose” the sanctions against Iran. He also denied the argument that failing to approve the deal will mean increased chances for war with Iran.

“That is not true,” he said. “The option is keeping the sanctions in place, and in fact, even strengthening the sanctions.”

But Moniz said sanctions against Iran “weren’t effective” without “international unity,” which the White House has warned would wane if the U.S. walked away from the deal. He said “undercutting this agreement unilaterally by the United States is about a high-risk strategy as I can imagine.”

“We lose all the benefits on the constraints on their nuclear program, we lose all the benefits of verification, and the sanction regime will clearly be much less effective than it has been in bringing Iran to the table,” he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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