WASHINGTON – As much as any other foreign policy issue during President Barack Obama’s five years in office, the question of Iran sanctions now finds him at odds with most Republicans and a hefty portion of his own party’s lawmakers.
A bipartisan juggernaut of senior senators is spending the remaining week of the Thanksgiving recess forging agreement on a new sanctions bill that the senators hope to pass before breaking again for Christmas.
The administration believes the legislation could scuttle the interim nuclear agreement reached with Iran on Nov. 23 and derail upcoming negotiations on a permanent deal — scheduled for completion in six months — to ensure that Iran will never be able to build a nuclear weapon.
The administration contends that new sanctions would not only violate the terms of the interim agreement, which temporarily freezes Iran’s nuclear programs and modestly eases existing sanctions, but also could divide the United States from its international negotiating partners and give the upper hand to Iranian hard-liners in upcoming talks.
David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said: “The purpose of sanctions from the outset was to create a dynamic so that you can get a change in policy from the Iranians. It’s not sanctions for the sake of having sanctions.”
Iran’s lead negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, said Sunday that the next set of talks is likely to be held next week. The ISNA news agency had said Friday that political directors of the countries involved were expected to meet with IAEA officials in Vienna next Monday and Tuesday.
Between now and the Senate’s return next Monday, the White House has organized a full-court press to persuade lawmakers not to act.
In addition to briefings for anyone who wants one, Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, national security adviser Susan Rice and other top officials are making personal calls. Kerry sent a video to his former Capitol Hill colleagues explaining the deal, “because some people are putting out some misinformation on it.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a Democrat who is one of the leading proponents of new sanctions, said he wonders what all the fuss is about. “From my perspective, it strengthens the administration’s hand” and positions the United States “for the possibility that (a permanent) agreement cannot ultimately be struck,” Menendez said of a new sanctions bill. “It would make clear to the Iranians if they don’t strike a deal, this is what’s coming.”
Menendez favors a measure that would bring further reductions in international purchases of Iranian oil and find new opportunities for sanctions on Iran’s private sector. While some other proposals include requirements ranging from presidential reports to Congress every 30 days during the interim period to an outright ban on U.S. dealings with any country buying Iran’s oil, Menendez would vote now but delay implementation for six months until it was clear that the long-term negotiations had failed. He would also include a provision for a presidential waiver.
If Congress waits to fashion a sanctions package and there is no final deal, he said, Iran may well have the four to six weeks he believes it needs to fashion a nuclear weapon before lawmakers could respond.
After a new sanctions bill passed with near-unanimity in the House of Representatives this summer, 76 senators, including Democratic stalwarts such as Barbara Mikulski, Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, along with conservative Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Kelly Ayotte, signed a letter urging Obama to take tougher action against Iran, even as new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared a willingness for serious negotiations.
The Senate had agreed to an administration request to postpone a vote until after the most recent round of negotiations, which ended with the interim accord. Now many see no reason not to move ahead.
Opponents of the pact see many flaws, from allowing Iran to continue low-level uranium enrichment to the possibility that even a modest easing of economic restrictions would lead to the collapse of the entire sanctions regime.
The administration has sought to push back against what it calls inaccuracies and distortions of the agreement, particularly the limited sanctions relief, which officials say was specifically structured to make certain that the harshest measures remain intact.
Last Tuesday, Treasury officials announced a $100 million settlement with a Swiss oil services company, Weatherford International, for supplying technology to Iran in apparent violation of sanctions. The settlement, the largest of its kind, was intended to signal a “deep commitment to target those who seek to violate our sanctions,” said Adam Szubin, director of the department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
While various U.S. and U.N. sanctions have been in place for more than a decade, the Obama administration and allies in Congress and Western Europe imposed restrictions beginning in 2010 that dramatically increased the pain for Iran’s economy. The measures blocked Iranian banks from using international financial networks and wiped out more than half of Iran’s foreign oil exports, the country’s chief source of hard currency. The sanctions triggered soaring inflation and unemployment and a steep drop in the purchasing power of Iran’s currency, the rial.
Iranian officials have acknowledged the crippling impact of the sanctions, which were a major factor in Iran’s decision to seek a nuclear deal with the West.
U.S. officials have estimated the sanctions relief allowed under the interim agreement to be worth about $7 billion over six months. By contrast, about $100 billion in Iranian oil revenue remains frozen by sanctions, and Iran continues to lose $4 billion a month in depressed oil sales.