WASHINGTON – The weekend deal spelling out how Iran will roll back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief buttresses the Obama administration’s claim that Tehran may be prepared for a grand diplomatic compromise that would avert the potential for war. But it seems that despite the accord, skeptical lawmakers are determined to levy new sanctions against Iran.
With world powers and Iran set to start the clock on their six-month interim agreement Jan. 20, a parallel showdown looms between President Barack Obama and Congress over legislative action that each side says has serious implications for the chances of diplomatic success. Obama warns that adding more sanctions could kill negotiations; legislators insist that they’re the only way of ensuring Iran stays true to its word. Much could depend on Tehran quickly making good on its commitments.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the fact that Iran’s government was now implementing what has been agreed “demonstrates that at the very least, testing whether or not Iran is serious is the right thing to do.”
The question of sanctions is essentially a tactical dispute over the best way to achieve a shared goal: preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and delivering an existential threat to Israel, while fundamentally reshaping the power dynamics of the Middle East. But pressure from Congress has proven a constant thorn in the side of the Obama administration, even as Iran’s moderate-sounding President Hassan Rouhani is offering unprecedented flexibility in talks.
The administration reached a milestone in its strategy Sunday. The U.S. and its five negotiating partners — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — secured a deal with Iran articulating exactly how the Islamic republic will scale back its uranium enrichment program, halt progress at a plutonium plant, and open up key sites to daily inspections beginning next week. In exchange, world powers outlined how they will phase in $7 billion worth of relief from international sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy. The full agreement has yet to be made public.
The agreement “will advance our goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama declared in a statement Sunday. He reiterated a threat to veto any new sanctions legislation from Congress, saying such action risks “derailing our efforts.” Carney added Monday that new sanctions are “wholly unnecessary” because Congress could always act later.
Sunday’s implementation agreement provides the nuts and bolts to November’s breakthrough interim deal with Iran, an arrangement that can be extended by six additional months. Negotiators hope to replace it with a comprehensive accord this year that will end the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
Iranian reformers and moderate conservatives welcomed the agreement Monday, while hardliners repeated their opposition. Iran’s leaders say uranium and plutonium activity is designed solely for peaceful nuclear energy and medical research purposes, but the United States and many other countries fear Tehran is covertly advancing toward atomic weapons capability. Among these, Israel and Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals such as Saudi Arabia have been most vocal in their skepticism of diplomacy, and their concerns have been echoed by a growing chorus in Congress.
Fifty-nine senators now back the latest proposed U.S. sanctions package, which they say would increase the pressure on Iran to make concessions and fully dismantle — not simply slow down — the entire nuclear program. The count takes sanctions proponents closer to being able to push a bill through Congress and override even a presidential veto. The House overwhelmingly supports additional economic pressure on Tehran.
No sanctions vote is expected imminently. Congressional aides said top proponents such as Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York were waiting for the best opportunity to push the issue, with much of the focus now on building a stronger coalition. Some Senate aides cited early February as the earliest possibility.
The legislation under consideration would blacklist several Iranian industrial sectors and threaten banks and companies around the world with being banned from the U.S. market if they help Iran export any more oil. The provisions would take effect if Tehran violates the interim deal or lets it expire without a final agreement.
Several sanctions advocates said nothing this weekend changed their minds.
“If Iran is committed to comprehensively addressing its nuclear program, there is no reason such legislation shouldn’t be welcomed,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-California, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Republican chairman.
Another declared supporter, Democrat Sen. Bob Casey, cited Iran’s past record of negotiating in bad faith and its U.S.-declared status as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, but said he’d consult with American intelligence and the administration on how to advance national security interests.
Significant opposition in the Senate remains. Influential Democratic such as Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin have backed the administration’s call for a pause to new sanctions while international inspectors gauge Iran’s adherence to the deal. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid held off a vote during defense bill negotiations last month and hasn’t signaled when the issue might reach the floor.
Congressional aides said they expected little-to-no movement among legislators as a result of this weekend’s implementation agreement. The administration briefed Congress on some of the details Monday, participants in the conference call said. Officials also said that Obama will meet Senate Democrats on Wednesday night to discuss priorities for 2014, during which Iran is likely to come up.