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Kerry on Iran deal: 'We'll continue to persuade'
01:36 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

In a setback to what has otherwise been a largely successful White House drive to secure enough support to implement the Iran nuclear deal, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin announced Friday he will oppose it.

Cardin, who is Jewish and the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, is only the third Senate Democrat to oppose the deal, which is otherwise nearing enough support to prevent a GOP-authored resolution of disapproval from even getting to a final vote.

“Throughout the process of evaluating the Iran nuclear agreement, I continuously returned to two fundamental questions: Is this deal more or less likely to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state? Would rejection increase or decrease the likelihood of the nightmare scenario of a nuclear-armed Iran?” Cardin wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. “Despite the rhetoric coming from all sides, this is not a clear choice. Nobody possesses clairvoyance.”

“This is a close call, but after a lengthy review, I will vote to disapprove the deal,” he said.

Cardin’s announcement came moments after another closely watched Democrat, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, said he would support the deal.

“Our primary objectives are to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon, make sure Israel is safe and, if possible, avoid another war in the Middle East,” Bennet said in a statement. “This agreement represents a flawed, but important step to accomplish those goals.”

Bennet, who is up for re-election, said he would co-author legislation with Cardin to increase security assistance to Israel, expedite new sanctions against Iran if it commits acts of terrorism against the U.S., and require the administration to report to Congress what Iran is doing with the money it is getting through sanctions relief.

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“This should be a vote of conscience, not a litmus test of party loyalty or political acumen,” wrote Cardin, who is typically a reliable vote for the administration.

The senator spoke to students at two Maryland universities this week using very similar language with them as he did in his op-ed. But in those talks, he never tipped his hand which way he would vote.

“Objectively, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a global game-changer that would increase instability in one of the world’s most volatile regions,” Cardin said. “After Iran has received sanctions relief, it will be difficult to effectively re-impose sanctions to prevent a nuclear breakout. If Iran then rushed to produce a nuclear weapon, using the military option becomes more likely.”

Cardin praised the “diplomatic skills of the Obama administration” in reaching the deal with Iran and said it “does contain significant achievements” such as restricting Iran’s nuclear capabilities for 10-15 years and containing a “snap-back” of sanctions should Iran cheat.

But that wasn’t enough for Cardin, who has long been skeptical of reaching an acceptable deal with Iran, a country he deeply distrusts. Cardin was a lynchpin in negotiations between congressional Republicans and the White House to give Congress a say over the nuclear pact – the very disapproval legislation Cardin now says he will support.

“There cannot be respect for a country that actively foments regional instability, advocates for Israel’s destruction, kills the innocent and shouts ‘Death to America,’” he said.

Among other things, Cardin said he is concerned about the nuclear inspections process and that Iran would be again be able to obtain ballistic missiles.

“I remain troubled that we agreed to a challenge period of up to 24 days for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections should Iran deny access to an undeclared, suspicious site. And I cannot support lifting the U.N. arms embargo and ballistic missile sanctions,” he said.

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Despite losing Cardin, supporters of the deal remain very close to the 41 votes the need to block a vote on the disapproval legislation. To this point, 38 senators have said yes and five remain unannounced.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee issued a statement praising Cardin for his “due diligence” in understanding the complex deal and making a decision that “was very difficult for him.”

Referencing Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, a former chairman of the committee and a principal critic of the Iran deal, Corker said. “The fact that the two Democrats who have spent the most time in understanding the details and impact of the his deal do not support it speaks volumes.”