WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State John Kerry will call on Congress to not approve any new sanctions on Iran while negotiations continue with Tehran about its nuclear program, which the US and its allies worry could eventually produce nuclear weapons.
Kerry plans to make his case while briefing members of the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday during a closed session. The committee is seen as likely to take up a new sanctions bill that would impose limitations on business with Iran.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday that he will make clear that putting any new sanctions in place “would be a mistake.”
She said that Kerry, as a senator, voted in favor of Iranian sanctions several times, but that a vote for or against sanctions right now is really a “vote for or against diplomacy.”
“We are still determining if there’s a diplomatic path forward. What we are asking for right now is a pause, a temporary pause, in sanctions,” she said. “This is about ensuring that our legislative strategy and our negotiating strategy are running hand in hand.”
Discussions between Iran and world powers failed to reach an agreement last week in Geneva, but another round of diplomacy is planned for next week.
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 session.
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.
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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report