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Congress should not kill Iran deal

Would GOP congressmen be satisfied if Obama convinced Iran to become a secular democracy?

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham got it right on Sunday when he said the framework accord between Iran and the major world powers on Tehran's disputed nuclear program is probably the best deal the Obama administration could have gotten. Of course, he didn't mean it as a compliment — in his view, he or most any 2016 presidential contender, including Democrat Hillary Clinton, could have done better. But in the same breath, he said the administration deserves the space to try to fill in the details of an accord — a reflection of the dawning realization among Republicans that they need to tread cautiously lest they be blamed for sabotaging the talks or, worse, putting the nation's security at risk for partisan gain.

Even as Mr. Obama's GOP critics double down on their insistence that the preliminary accord announced last week is a "bad deal" for America and its allies, they also have to reckon with the reality of what would happen if Congress actually blocked the agreement currently on the table. The international economic sanctions regime against Iran would swiftly collapse as Europe, Russia and China blamed the talks' failure on the United States' inability to get its act together. At the same time, a newly flush Iran could dash to develop a bomb, freed from the international restrictions that have frozen its nuclear ambitions in place since 2013.

It's hard to see how either would make the U.S. safer. And the only conceivable means to stop Iran from getting a bomb at that point — war — certainly wouldn't.

Republicans in Congress who are so loudly demanding that they be given the authority to veto any proposed agreement don't seem to understand that the surest way to eviscerate the sanctions they want to strengthen is to walk away from a final deal they haven't even seen yet. Tough talk may play well in their districts, but actually carrying it out in Congress would only make us weaker.

Count us among those who wish we could get a stronger deal — say, one that required Iran to destroy its entire nuclear infrastructure rather than simply mothball it for a decade or so? Or one that maintained international monitors and inspectors at all its nuclear sites not for just 10 or 15 years but forever? Or still better, one that required the mullahs in Tehran to renounce their support of international terrorism, destroy their ballistic missiles, voluntarily resign from office and organize free multi-party elections under a new constitution that protects human rights?

But that's not the situation we're facing. To insist that no nuclear deal is preferable to one that subjects Tehran's program to an unprecedented degree of international scrutiny that ensures it can't violate the agreement and race to build a bomb without the world knowing about it for at least a year in advance is to make the perfect the enemy of the very good. Unfortunately, though, politics no longer stops at the water's edge. We have no doubt that even if Iran capitulated to every demand the U.S. could possibly make, some congressional Republicans would still be looking for ways to gum up the works — and then blame Mr. Obama for failing to protect the country.

Congress clearly has a role to play in any deal the administration reaches with Iran, but not one that usurps the president's authority to conduct foreign policy. Over the weekend, Mr. Obama said he would welcome congressional input from members of both parties, and a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Corker, head of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Robert Menendez, who was the committee's ranking Democrat until his recent indictment, could allow Congress to express its views without undermining the president's power to enter into binding agreements with foreign powers. Mr. Corker's bill isn't perfect, but Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, who took Mr. Menendez's place as the committee's top-ranking Democrat, thinks that with a couple of tweaks it could serve as the basis for a productive dialogue between Capitol Hill and the White House.

There's still no guarantee that the U.S. and other world powers will be able in the next three months to finalize the terms of a deal to limit Iran's nuclear program. But prematurely aborting the process doesn't serve anyone's interest — not ours, not our allies' and not even Iran's. At this delicate stage in the negotiations, Congress needs to figure out how to play a constructive role in the ongoing talks that doesn't risk wrecking the chances for an agreement.

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