Obama urges senators to hold off on new Iran sanctions

After meeting, bipartisan group of lawmakers says Tehran should retain no enrichment capability, argues against easing sanctions

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

President Barack Obama (photo credit:AP/Cliff Owen)
President Barack Obama (photo credit:AP/Cliff Owen)

A day before a new round of talks with Iran on its nuclear program was slated to begin in Geneva, and with a deal reportedly in the works, US President Barack Obama met for two hours with members of various Senate committees on Tuesday in an attempt to convince them to hold off on new sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Obama argued that a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear question was in America’s national security interest, according to a White House statement. He told the senators that an initial, six-month first step proposed by the world powers known as the P5+1 — encompassing the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany — would stop the program’s progress for the first time in nearly a decade, create unprecedented transparency, and give the US time to negotiate a long-term solution.

He also said that sanctions relief would be limited, temporary, and reversible. Obama and the senators were joined during the meeting by Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. From the Senate, attendees included Democrats Dick Durbin (IL) and Charles Schumer, alongside Republicans Saxby Chambliss (GA) and Bob Corker (TN).

Corker said Obama had asked lawmakers to pause for “a period of time” but he didn’t not specify how long the president asked lawmakers to wait.

He said some lawmakers wanted to be able to at least announce new sanctions proposals in the coming days. But he said there would not be any sanctions amendments added before Thanksgiving to an annual defense bill, which could be the main vehicle for new imposing economic penalties.

The Democrat-controlled Senate has thus far acceded to the president’s requests to hold off on additional economic pressure and let negotiations with the Islamic Republic run their course.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama told the senators that without an initial agreement, Iran would keep making progress on its enrichment program. He said new sanctions would be most effective as a consequence for Iran refusing to accept a deal or forsaking its commitments under an agreement.

In a letter to Kerry after the meeting, a bipartisan group of influential senators urged the administration not to accept a deal that would allow Iran to persist in its nuclear program. The senators cited specific concerns about nuclear activities Iran would continue to be allowed to conduct, such as enriching uranium at certain levels and maintaining its current number of centrifuges. They also said some estimates put the value of the sanctions relief in the deal at up to $10 billion.

Senator Lindsey Graham, right, accompanied by Senator John McCain, speaks with reporters outside the White House in Washington, D.C., in September 2013. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Senator Lindsey Graham, right, accompanied by Senator John McCain, speaks with reporters outside the White House in Washington, D.C., in September 2013. (photo credit: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

“It is our understanding that the interim agreement now under consideration would not require Iran to even meet the terms of prior United Nations Security Council resolutions, which require Iran to suspend its reprocessing, heavy water-related and enrichment-related activities and halt ongoing construction of any uranium-enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water-related facilities,” they wrote.

“While the interim agreement may suggest that Iran could be willing temporarily to slow its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, it could also allow Iran to continue making some progress toward that end under the cover of negotiations,” the letter said. “This does not give us confidence that Iran is prepared to abandon unambiguously its nuclear weapons pursuit altogether, as it must.”

It was signed by Democrats Schumer (NY), Robert Menendez (NJ), Bob Casey (PA), and Republicans Lindsey Graham (SC), John McCain (AZ), and Susan Collins (ME).

The reported contours of a potential deal with Iran would allow Tehran to keep enriching uranium at 3.5 percent, limit the number of centrifuges without reducing them, and keep the Arak heavy water reactor open. Iran would in turn enjoy an easing of economic sanctions.

The senators urged the administration to not allow Iran to retain any enrichment capability, echoing a key demand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They also demanded that any easing of sanctions come only after Iran reduced its nuclear capabilities in a meaningful way.

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil and AP contributed to this report.

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