Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as some U.S. lawmakers said they share Israel’s view favoring more sanctions aimed at curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
“We just don’t agree” with Netanyahu that further sanctions now would force Iran to agree to give up all uranium enrichment activity, Kerry said, describing today’s phone call on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
President Barack Obama’s administration plans to hold more briefings with U.S. lawmakers today as it tries to build a case for a pause in new sanctions. Kerry said that action by Congress now would risk the progress made in Geneva negotiations, where world powers and Iran are close to a first-step accord to constrain Iranian nuclear activities and buy time to negotiate a comprehensive agreement.
“Iran may interpret the congressional reaction of wanting to increase sanctions as bad faith on our part, and unwillingness to in fact negotiate, and it may drive the hardliners even more into a commitment that they have to have the weapons,” Kerry said.
Kerry, who met with senators yesterday, said his plea to lawmakers is: “Give us the time to be able to negotiate and be able to present the good deal that will be able to protect Israel, protect our interests, protect the region.”
Some Republicans said they’re determined to increase economic pressure on Iran, and congressional skepticism about the Iran deal being negotiated is bipartisan.
“I hope we can work something out with Iran, but I am a person who really believes in the state of Israel,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, told reporters yesterday.
“Our concern over here in dealing with the nuclear capability of Iran is one thing,” he said. “Put your mind-set that you’re in Israel. There are not thousands of miles separating you. It’s scores of miles. What we do has to be done right.”
Lawmakers from both parties in Congress and Netanyahu have criticized the negotiations in Geneva last week toward a first-step agreement, saying it would ease some existing sanctions without first ensuring an end to Iran’s uranium enrichment.
The deal would offer Iran only limited relaxation of certain sanctions on Iran, a step necessary to make it “worthwhile for them to say yes,” Kerry said today. If the talks fail, the world “becomes more dangerous,” he said.
The talks in Geneva broke up last weekend without an initial agreement and are scheduled to resume next week. 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.
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 was 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 yesterday 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.
Brent crude for December settlement, which expires today, gained as much as 1.3 percent in London. The International Monetary Fund this week said Iran needs to “tackle high inflation and restore economic growth.” The IMF projects 42.3 percent consumer price inflation in Iran this year, up from 30.5 percent in 2012.