Senate Democratic leaders are withholding comment on an Obama administration request to delay new sanctions against Iran, as some Republicans say they’re determined to increase economic pressure aimed at curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other top Democrats declined to answer questions about their plans yesterday after a closed-door meeting where Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry argued that approving additional sanctions now would jeopardize talks toward an agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear development.
“No comment,” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson said, when asked how the briefing went. The South Dakota Democrat said he hadn’t decided whether to move forward with a new sanctions bill and had no deadline in mind.
Before the meeting, Kerry told reporters that any congressional movement toward new sanctions could unnerve U.S. allies and destroy chances of reaching an agreement with Iran.
“The risk is that if Congress were to unilaterally move to raise sanctions, it could break faith with those negotiations and actually stop them and break them apart,” Kerry said. “What we’re asking everybody to do is calm down, look hard at what can be achieved or what the realities are.”
Lawmakers from both parties in Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have criticized negotiations in Geneva last week toward a first-step agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear program that would ease some existing sanctions without first ensuring an end to Iran’s uranium enrichment.
The talks in Geneva broke up last weekend without an initial agreement and are scheduled to resume Nov. 20. Iran is negotiating with a group known as the P5+1, made up of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the U.S., U.K., France, Russia and China -- plus Germany.
President Barack Obama’s administration plans to hold more briefings with lawmakers today as it tries to build a case for a pause in new sanctions.
Several Republican senators said they weren’t persuaded by Kerry’s pitch yesterday.
Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration briefing suffered from “a lack of specificity based on an emotional appeal” to give negotiations more time. The briefing was at best “incomplete,” said Corker, who said he was worried the administration will grant waivers in coming weeks to lessen the impact of current sanctions.
“I do think we ought to accelerate sanctions,” said Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who has been a leader in advancing previous sanctions legislation. “The pitch was very unconvincing.”
Supporters of a new sanctions bill haven’t settled on its provisions or procedures for considering it. While a measure could emerge from the Senate Banking Committee, another forum may be the debate over the annual defense authorization bill that the Senate is scheduled to take up as soon as today.
“I’d be surprised if we do not have a debate on enhanced Iran sanctions on the defense authorization bill,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said at a news conference yesterday.
McConnell, who said the Obama administration was promoting a “bad deal,” said, “We ought to be actually ratcheting up the sanctions against Iran.”
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, said that sanctions don’t belong on the defense bill crafted by his panel and that he backs the administration’s request to hold off.
“I support maintaining tight sanctions against Iran,” Levin told reporters yesterday. “I don’t support increasing them at this time, because I think it could interfere with the negotiations.”
“If negotiations don’t succeed, or don’t succeed in a way that is acceptable, we can always add additional sanctions at that time,” Levin said.
Kerry said that the U.S. has support from other countries negotiating with Iran for a proposal to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
If Congress imposed new sanctions now, Kerry said, allies “would think we’re dealing in bad faith and they would bolt. Then the sanctions do fall apart.”
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said “countries like China and Russia will start to opt out of pressuring Iran” if they think the U.S. is piling on more sanctions just when the group is close to a deal.
More penalties now, he said, would create the impression that “Washington’s underlying goal is to change Iran’s regime, rather than merely its nuclear policy.”
The U.S. and Israel say uranium enrichment in Iran and construction of a reactor capable of producing plutonium would help the Islamic Republic develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons. The Persian Gulf nation says its nuclear program is for civilian medical and energy uses.
Netanyahu has said Israel may have no choice but to launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if negotiations fail. He called on Nov. 10 for American Jews to “stand up now and be counted” against a partial agreement with Iran.
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