WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to brief the Senate Banking Committee about the latest round of nuclear negotiations with Iran on Wednesday, but senators are divided as to the next course of action toward Tehran. Key Democrats have indicated that they are ready to move forward on additional sanctions legislation, and at least one important Republican would rather devote his legislative energies toward preventing the US from giving up too much in the next round of talks.
Differing reports of a deal that fell through during last week’s round of P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva have engendered increasing criticism of the Obama administration’s stance during the talks. Kerry will likely have to defend the administration’s negotiations during the closed-door session of the Banking Committee, which is the committee likely to take up a new sanctions bill.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) warned Sunday, as details of the talks filtered out of Geneva, against a situation in which “we seem to want the deal almost more than the Iranians. And you can’t want the deal more than the Iranians, especially when the Iranians are on the ropes.”
Menendez suggested that any deal should include a cessation of enrichment and an increase in the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program. He also congratulated the French negotiators for taking a tough tone toward the Arak heavy water plant — noting that “its only purpose in a country with such large oil reserves is to make nuclear fuel for nuclear weapons.”
Menendez, who has been a key supporter of previous Iran sanctions initiatives, announced during the interview on ABC’s “This Week” that the time had come for movement on Senate legislation to increase sanctions against Iran.
“I think that the possibility of moving ahead with new sanctions, including wording it in such a way that if there is a deal that is acceptable that those sanctions could cease upon such a deal, is possible,” Menendez said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward on a package that ultimately would send a very clear message where we intend to be if the Iranians don’t strike a deal and stop their nuclear weapons program,” he added.
The Obama administration had asked, before the recent round of talks began, that the Senate delay action on sanctions to allow negotiations to take their course.
The State Department would not comment Monday on its opinion on the anticipated move by the Senate to take up additional sanctions legislation.
In recent years, Congress has been fertile ground for tough sanctions against Tehran, with the latest such bill clearing the House of Representatives by a vote of 400 to 20. Even in cases in which the administration has demonstrated reluctance, members of both parties in Congress have enthusiastically voted in an increasingly stringent sanctions regime.
But in the wake of last week’s negotiations, there is now a three-way split in terms of priorities. In addition to the pro-sanctions and anti-sanctions camps, Sen. Robert Corker (R-TN), the ranking member on Menendez’s committee has a third direction — not to focus on pushing for harsher sanctions, but on preventing the administration from giving away too much.
Asked over the weekend about sanctions, Corker was uncharacteristically noncommittal. “I don’t know,” he began, noting that “new sanctions would not kick in for several months” and emphasizing that “the administration has dialed back the rheostat since Rouhani’s election on the existing sanctions that we have. They have a lot of ability to waive and turn down and conduct these operations in lesser or stronger ways.”
Rather than offer a strong voice for the new sanctions, Corker is instead pushing an idea that he hinted at last week — legislation that would block the president from using any of those waivers that he mentioned unless Iran meets a number of key conditions — all of which are more stringent than the reported terms of the agreement proposed in Geneva.
The reported break-down of talks coupled with the leaks of terms slammed by Israel — and the Republican Party — as too generous makes it harder than ever for Senate moderates to continue to maintain the administration’s tenuous delay on the legislation. Fence-sitting senators have said that they will wait until Kerry’s briefing Wednesday — but that following that, they will decide whether to advance sanctions legislation.
The administration’s plea to hold off on sanctions legislation suffered a key defection Monday when Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman publicly changed his stance from supporting the request to calling for the Senate to advance legislation to increase sanctions against Tehran.
“I was among the few Jewish leaders to give the Obama Administration the benefit of the doubt in pursuing the diplomatic route and agreed to refrain from urging the Senate to impose additional sanctions for a short period of time to enable the US to pursue diplomacy,” noted the ADL leader in a statement from Jerusalem.
“I wanted to give the Obama administration a chance to demonstrate that they could make real progress on this issue,” he explained. Foxman said that he was “deeply troubled” by the reported terms of a tentative agreement almost reached in Geneva.
“I am now convinced that this agreement will not only prematurely roll back the sanctions regime, but that it would legitimize Iran as a threshold nuclear state,” he warned, adding that “we no longer have the luxury or the option to refrain from enacting additional sanctions against Iran. The time has come for Congress, especially the Senate, not only to reconfirm and strengthen the existing sanctions, but also to begin to impose additional sanctions against Iran.”