Slowdown or showdown en route to new Iran sanctions bill

Obama administration steps up top-level push to delay additional sanctions legislation set to go through Senate

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 — Concerned about a lack of support in the Senate for the administration’s plan to delay a new Iran sanctions bill, the Obama administration is dispatching top-tier advocates to press the president’s cause on Capitol Hill starting Wednesday.

The push is expected to culminate in a closed-door meeting of the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday during which Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are slated to make the administration’s case to delay any additional sanctions legislation.

The Washington-based website Politico detailed a busy schedule of meetings on Iran over the next two days. Kerry was scheduled to hold a breakfast meeting Wednesday with Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Sen. Robert Corker (R-TN), while other administration officials were to be dispatched to Capitol Hill to brief other committee leaders and ranking members.

The Senate Banking Committee is set to take up draft legislation that would further toughen up sanctions against Iran, despite Tehran’s return to the negotiating table. Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told AIPAC in an address this week that the sanctions legislation he was considering would cut Iran’s oil exports further to a mere 500,000 barrels per day.

Such sanctions would reduce by half the current amount of oil exported from Iran, but would be more moderate than the parallel bill approved in July by the House of Representatives, which would almost completely eliminate such exports. Should such a bill pass through the Senate, it would then face a reconciliation process with the House legislation.

Menendez has taken a hard line in the past on Iran sanctions, and, according to a copy of his speech to AIPAC obtained by Reuters, he believes that “this is not the time to loosen sanctions.” Now, the powerful senator is reportedly waiting until this week’s briefings to deliver a verdict as to whether he will comply with the administration’s call to delay action on the Senate legislation.

The administration is looking for a delay on the legislation — most likely at least until it knows the outcome of the upcoming P5+1 talks with Iran scheduled for November 8 in Geneva.

“While we understand that Congress may consider new sanctions, we think this is a time for a pause, as we asked for in the past, to see if negotiations can gain traction,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said late last week.

The administration’s strong push to delay sanctions legislation began Thursday, when Senate Democratic leaders were asked, during a meeting at the White House, to delay the bill’s progress in the Senate. The Senate Banking Committee had been expected to introduce the sanctions bill on the following Tuesday.

The bill was one of the topics on the table Tuesday evening as well, when the White House called in a number of American Jewish organizations’ leaders who have advocated for a tougher approach on Iran.

Among the organizations that participated was AIPAC, which has taken the lead in pushing for the new sanctions legislation in the House and the Senate. AIPAC officials would not comment as to whether they were explicitly asked during the hastily summoned meeting to ease up the pressure on senators to approve the legislation, but left-leaning Jewish groups who are less sanctions-enthusiastic said that they had not been asked to attend the meeting.

Leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and AIPAC met with National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Advisors Antony Blinken and Ben Rhodes and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, but none of the organizations emerged from the meeting publicly voicing promises to stop pushing for the new legislation.

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