Kerry Defends Iran Deal as Senate Considers New Sanctions

Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew will brief U.S. senators today on the nuclear accord reached with Iran last month, in an effort to derail a congressional push for new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Democrats and Republicans alike are expected to question the cabinet secretaries in the closed-door session over potential loopholes in the Nov. 24 agreement, verification of Iran’s cooperation and action against anyone who violates the sanctions against doing business with Iran, Senate aides said.

Deep divisions over Iran between the Obama administration and some members of Congress were aired yesterday when Kerry testified before a House panel. He defended the preliminary deal struck in Geneva as the best chance to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons and argued that new sanctions risked undermining negotiations toward a final accord.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois are in talks over legislation that aides said could be ready as soon as today. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters that “we’re really close to a new bill” that could be introduced this week.

Even so, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said that a vote is unlikely before the end of the year.

“There’s this notion that we should let the negotiations progress to the point where we can get a clear indication of whether Iran is pursuing them in good faith,” Durbin said in an interview. “I think it’s going to be tough for us to get this done before the holidays.”

Six-Month Window

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat, issued a statement yesterday that President Barack Obama and Kerry “have made a strong case for a pause in congressional action on new Iran sanctions,” and said he would “hold off on committee action for now.”

Delaying a sanctions vote would aid the Obama administration, which pledged in the Geneva accord that it would seek no new sanctions during the next six months while trying to negotiate a solution to the decade-long dispute over Iran’s nuclear activities.

The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of pursuing the capability to make a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian energy and medical research only.

“This is a very delicate diplomatic moment, and we have a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world faces,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday.

‘Hinge Points’

Calling the decision over how to proceed “one of those hinge points in history,” Kerry warned that “one path could lead to an enduring resolution in the international community’s fears about Iran’s nuclear program. The other path could lead to continued hostility and potentially to conflict.”

In the past three years, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed dozens of sanctions on banking, oil, energy investments, ports, shipping and other trade with Iran.

Lawmakers from both parties have voiced opposition to the decision by the Obama administration to ease some sanctions on gold, autos and petrochemicals in exchange for concessions over Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work in the first-step agreement reached last month.

During the House hearing, Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican, and Representative Eliot Engel, the panel’s top Democrat, were joined by almost every other committee member in arguing that threatening new penalties would strengthen the U.S. hand in talks. The House passed new sanctions by a 400-20 vote in July, while the Senate hasn’t taken up a similar bill.

Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, yesterday accused Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, of packing this week’s calendar with nomination hearings in “a rather transparent attempt to prevent a vote on enhanced Iran sanctions.”

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