Iran Deal’s Fate May Rest on a Courtly Tennessee Senator

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Republican Senator Bob Corker. Photographer: David Banks/Bloomberg

The fate of the Iran nuclear deal in the U.S. Congress rests partly on a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose courtly manner takes the edge off his often stinging criticism of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, 62, already had been talking tough through weeks of hearings and closed-door briefings, trying to harden the stance taken by the U.S. and other world powers in the negotiations aimed at curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

“I begin from a place of deep skepticism that the deal actually meets the goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Corker said in a statement after an agreement was finally reached Tuesday. Invoking an emerging Republican catchphrase, he said the accord with Iran amounts to “managing their proliferation.”

While Corker’s role as Foreign Relations chairman makes him a leading spokesman for the Republican critique of Obama as a weak leader in world affairs, he’s said he’s committed to serving as an “honest broker” as Congress conducts a 60-day review under legislation he engineered.

“I want to make sure we honor this process and do it in the right way, and I want to make sure that we create a vehicle and a method for people to vote their conscience on what they believe is best for our country,” Corker said on MSNBC after the agreement was announced in Vienna.

The Obama administration’s efforts to sell the deal to Congress will begin in earnest in a week, on July 23, when Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew testify before Corker’s committee.

Legislative Feat

Many colleagues credit Corker for overcoming initial White House opposition and winning broad support for the review legislation, which will let Congress vote on the agreement that would ease economic sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear ambitions. Obama is barred from easing U.S. sanctions during the review.

“I haven’t yet seen any single act of legislative ability to exceed what Corker did on this bill,” said Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats. “He was so patient with everybody and kept pushing it back from the jaws of defeat. His insistence on being bipartisan was absolutely crucial.”

Construction Industry

Corker, who graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974 with a degree in industrial management, made his fortune in the construction industry after starting a company at the age of 25 with $8,000 in savings and a pickup truck. He’s been learning foreign policy on the job since his election to the Senate in 2006.

Now, perhaps more than any other lawmaker, he has the power, influence and respect among colleagues to shape the debate as Congress decides whether to approve or reject the Iran deal.

Most Republican senators tried to derail a potential deal in March by writing a letter to Iranian leaders that said Obama lacked the power to negotiate on behalf of Congress. Corker was one of only seven Republicans who refused to sign it.

“I see my role as getting to an outcome, so I didn’t view the letter as helping to achieve an outcome that I would like to see,” Corker said.

That stance won him praise and respect from Democrats, who say they view Corker as an even-handed arbiter.

“His concern is the integrity of our effort and the review process,” said Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “He wants to have a fair review process. I know that.”

‘Heavy Lift’

The man at the center of the Iran deal review exudes a Southern gentility more reminiscent of a small-town mayor than a baron of Capitol Hill.

Meeting with reporters in his Senate office last month, Corker offered his guests the seats of their choice, while he paced the floor, trying to explain his concerns about a nuclear deal and whether he might end up supporting it.

While Corker’s voice will be influential, it may not be decisive. Even if Republicans decide to vote against the Iran deal, they would need significant support from Democrats to assemble the two-thirds majority required to override a presidential veto.

“It’s a heavy lift,” Corker said of any effort to block the deal.

Democrats, while praising Corker’s bipartisan approach, have expressed increasing concern since he wrote a letter to Obama last month saying he was alarmed by reports that “your team may be considering allowing the deal to erode even further” as negotiations dragged on.

“The letter suggested he was heading in a more skeptical direction,” said Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat on Corker’s committee.

Asked in an interview what alternative he would offer if he decides a deal is insufficient, Corker stopped short of advocating military action against Iran. “I guess the alternative is to keep negotiating,” he said.

“Is it worth dismantling years of sanctions efforts for a 10-year pause” in Iran’s nuclear program? he said. “I don’t know.”

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