Senators bring sanctions bill that could ‘kill’ Iran deal

Iranian FM has said ramping up economic measures against his country will spell the end of Geneva interim agreement

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (photo credit: CC BY-Glyn Lowe Photoworks, flickr)
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (photo credit: CC BY-Glyn Lowe Photoworks, flickr)

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of US senators on Thursday introduced new sanctions legislation that Iran has warned could “kill” its interim nuclear agreement with the six world powers. The “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act” was headed up by senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), who were joined by 24 additional lawmakers.

The bill, which came as talks over the implementation of the interim agreement resumed in Geneva after a nearly week-long hiatus, would impose sanctions that will come into effect should Iran violate the interim deal or fail to reach a final agreement.

According to the sponsors, the prospective legislation requires further reductions in purchases of Iranian petroleum and applies additional penalties to strategic elements of the Iranian economy, including the engineering, mining and construction sectors.

“Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table,” said Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The Iranians last week blamed the [Obama] Administration for enforcing sanctions; now, they criticize Congress. The burden rests with Iran to negotiate in good faith and verifiably terminate its nuclear weapons program. Prospective sanctions will influence Iran’s calculus and accelerate that process toward achieving a meaningful diplomatic resolution.”

The Obama administration has campaigned heavily against such legislation, arguing that it would make a comprehensive deal with Tehran more difficult to achieve.

But Menendez has long argued that the provisions included in the legislation should satisfy the administration’s concerns. Under its current wording, the legislation would give the administration what sponsors describe as “continued flexibility,” allowing “up to one year from the conclusion of an implementing agreement to pursue a diplomatic track resulting in the complete and verifiable termination of Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program.”

Among the co-sponsors of the deal were 13 Democrats who defied the administration’s active opposition to the legislation, including influential figures such as Menendez, Charles Schumer (D-NY), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY).

The departure is likely to cause increased tension between the Democrat co-sponsors and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who has supported the administration’s request to hold off on such legislation.

“The American people rightfully distrust Iran’s true intentions and they deserve an insurance policy to defend against Iranian deception during negotiations,” Kirk said shortly after the legislation was introduced. “This is a responsible, bipartisan bill to protect the American people from Iranian deception and I urge the majority leader to give the American people an up or down vote.”

On Thursday, Menendez’s co-sponsor drew attention to a “powerful” advertisement published by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in The New York Times, in which Wiesel urged the Senate to move forward with new sanctions legislation. “We should and we will,” Kirk promised via his official Twitter account.

Earlier in December, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the imposition of new sanctions by Congress would kill the deal hammered out through months of negotiations in Geneva, and lately in Vienna.

In an interview with Time Magazines, Zarif was asked what would happen if Congress imposed new sanctions, noting that the legislation could be worded to include a six-months hold during the period of the interim agreement.

Zarif’s answer was succinct: “The entire deal is dead.”

At the time, it appeared that the White House push to put a hold on additional sanctions had been successful. Reid indicated that no legislation would come up before the upper house returned from its holiday recess.

Last Friday, however, after Reid’s announcement, the “technical discussions” on implementing the deal hit the skids, with Iran pulling out of the Vienna-based conversations in protest over US enforcement of sanctions currently on the books. Talks resumed Thursday in Vienna, with reports that United Nations inspectors will be called upon to “verify” the deal before it goes into effect.

Thursday’s meeting came after a week in which talks were “derailed” — a term used by Zarif in an interview with CBS News — in the wake of Washington’s announcement of a new round of freezing assets and transactions for companies and individuals found by the US to have been violating existing sanctions protocol against Iran. Although the sanctions laws have been in effect throughout the talks, there have been few such enforcement moves in the months since US-Iranian relations have publicly warmed.

On the American side, White House spokesperson Jay Carney emphasized that the announcement last week should be seen as part of the US’s initial terms for negotiating the interim deal, that “implementing existing sanctions was always intended and… not part of the preliminary agreement.”

Although administration officials were wary of tying the new round of sanctions announcements too closely to the struggle to prevent the Senate from voting on new, harsher sanctions, it was the perception that talks were stalled as a result of the sanctions that pushed senators forward on the new legislation.

The House of Representatives passed its version of the legislation over the summer by a wide majority, shifting pressure toward the Senate to take action. Despite the bill’s introduction, work on the legislation will not begin until after the Senate returns from its recess in January.

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