Granting a reprieve.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Skeptical Senate Puts New Iran Sanctions on Hold

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have won a three-month reprieve from the threat of additional Congressional sanctions on Iran with the announcement Thursday of a political framework for a nuclear agreement.

Senator Mark Kirk, the Republican co-author of a bill imposing more sanctions against Iran, told us after Obama's speech that he did not expect a vote on the legislation he wrote with Democrat Robert Menendez before June 30. That's the deadline the U.S., Iran and five other great powers have set to finish negotiations for a final nuclear agreement.  Obama and Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, had warned that passage of those sanctions would destroy the nuclear talks.

"I think we will give them till the end of June," Kirk told us. He also insisted that the framework deal was more generous to the Iranians than Chamberlain's offer to Hitler at Munich, and that Congress would be "an over-watching presence" in the coming months as negotiators continued the talks.

The delay of the Kirk-Menendez bill doesn't mean the fight between the White House and Congress over Iran will wait until July -- quite the contrary. A bill written by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker that would mandate a Congressional review of any deal is still moving forward. The White House has warned that this legislation, too, would harm the negotiations.  

Corker told us Thursday he has several concerns about the framework agreement and that he will keep pushing his Iran bill, which would provide for a Senate vote on any agreement.

Corker’s committee will mark up the bill on April 14, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could bring it to the floor any time after that, Corker said. Senator Ben Cardin, who today replaced Menendez as the ranking Democrat on the committee, was one of 12 Democratic senators to sign a letter pledging to support the Corker bill after the March 24 deadline passed.

“I don’t know if it will be brought to the floor immediately or if a period of time will go by,” Corker said. “With the agreement as it's been announced, there’s a good chance additional momentum will mount. What you want to do is ensure that when you bring it to the floor that you have hopefully veto-proof support.”

This week, Democratic Senator Mark Warner came out in support of the bill, bringing the rough whip count to 64 of the 67 needed votes to override Obama’s promised veto.

Congress will need more details on the framework agreement than what the administration provided today, Corker said. For example, there’s no clarity in the fact sheet distributed by the White House about exactly when the United Nations, the EU and the U.S. would lift sanctions currently imposed on Iran. “We don’t know what they would have to do for that to occur,” Corker said. “Congress can do something by weighing in on this deal. Congress’s role in this and concerns about this area could over time effect what actually happens.”

The terms of the deal itself are still being worked out, and in some cases are disputed or contradictory. Parts of the deal will only last 10 years, while other commitments would last up to 25 years. Iran will be able to keep making low-enriched uranium with around 6,000 centrifuges, and will get to keep the facility it built and initially hid inside a mountain known as Fordo. But Iran will no longer be able to enrich uranium there.

There’s also no information about whether Iran would be required to ship abroad its current stockpiles of highly enriched uranium, Corker told us. He said the Iranians and the Americans don’t seem to be on the same page about many details, including whether or not sanctions can be re-imposed after they are lifted, if Iran is caught cheating.

“There are discrepancies between what Iran is saying and what the P5+1 is saying,” Corker told us.

Echoing Corker's concerns, House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement Thursday that the details of the deal were too scarce and that Congress must pass a bill to ensure legislative review of the final agreement.

"My longtime concerns about the parameters of this potential agreement remain, but my immediate concern is the administration signaling it will provide near-term sanctions relief," he said. "Congress must be allowed to fully review the details of any agreement before any sanctions are lifted."

Press conferences in Lausanne, Switzerland, that followed the announcement of the framework illustrated these discrepancies. Zarif was beaming when he briefed reporters there about the details. "We will continue enriching, we will continue research and development, our heavy water reactor will be modernized, and our facility in Fordo will remain open," he said.

Zarif also said that the EU, U.S. and UN would be lifting sanctions once the International Atomic Energy Agency verifies that Iran has complied with the terms of the agreement. But that is far from clear. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry gave a very different account, insisting that sanctions could be snapped back into place if Iran is caught cheating.

In Zarif's version, Iran needs to show it is complying only once to accrue the benefits of lifted sanctions. In Kerry and Obama's version, the prospect of re-imposing sanctions is like the sword of Damocles. 

With respect to the UN sanctions, the reality will likely be closer to Zarif's version of events. U.S. negotiators spent months working with allies to craft them and it's doubtful that the Security Council could re-impose them quickly upon learning of a violation.  

Unilateral U.S. sanctions, however, are a different story. The most powerful --targeting banks and other entities that did business with Iran's central bank and oil sector -- are a matter of U.S. law. While Obama can waive their enforcement during his presidency, his successor could impose them again unless Congress takes the laws off the books.

"The threat of enforcement remains real, even if there is a suggestion that sanctions are being relaxed -- banks want certainty, and they want to minimize risk," said Michael Zolandz,  a sanctions expert with the Dentons law firm's public policy and regulation practice. "Even with relaxed enforcement or new licenses, banks will shy away from business related to Iran. Unless Congress revokes a sanctions law, any presidential relief is temporary and limited. Waivers, licenses or a change in the enforcement priorities are discretionary -- and can change based on new facts or a new administration."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net