Republicans in the U.S. Congress stepped up calls for new Iran sanctions after negotiators extended nuclear talks until July, ensuring an uphill fight next year against opposition from some Democrats and a threatened presidential veto.
The American lawmakers were urged to act yesterday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the failure to reach a deal “gives an opportunity to continue the economic pressures that have proven to be the only thing that brought Iran to the table, to continue them, to toughen them.”
While a number of Republicans called for speedy action on sanctions legislation after the new Congress is seated in January, even some top Republicans stopped short of demanding a new round of penalties unless Iran violates an interim accord or the talks between Iran and world powers collapse.
Iran’s Nuclear Plan
“Congress must have the opportunity to weigh in before implementation of any final agreement and begin preparing alternatives, including tougher sanctions, should negotiations fail,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who’s in line to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Iran yesterday agreed with six world powers — China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. — to extend talks on its nuclear program, which had been due to end at midnight, with plans to craft a political framework by March 1 and fill in the technical details by July 1.
“This seven-month extension should be used to tighten the economic vise on Tehran — already suffering from falling energy prices — to force the concessions that Iran has been resisting,” Representative Ed Royce of California, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
Netanyahu’s plea for action matters because Israel traditionally has drawn strong support from both parties in Congress. The biggest pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said yesterday that “it is now essential that Congress take up new bipartisan sanctions legislation to let Tehran know that it will face much more severe pressure if it does not clearly abandon its nuclear weapons program.”
Obama’s administration threatened to veto such legislation when it was offered last year.
“Additional sanctions could leave some of our partners with the impression that this sanctions regime is more punitive in nature than anything else, and that could cause some cracks in that international coordination to appear,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing yesterday. “And that would therefore undermine the point of the sanctions regime in the first place.”
Even with Republicans controlling the Senate, they would lack the two-thirds vote needed for a veto override, said Larry Hanauer, a senior international policy analyst in Washington for the Rand Corp.
Sanctions legislation offered this year has 60 sponsors from both parties, enough to force a vote and pass a bill. Still, Hanauer, a former staff member for the House intelligence committee, said Democrats are unlikely to go along with moves that could disrupt the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts.
“It would look to the international community as if the United States is unilaterally walking away from negotiations,” Hanauer said. “That would leave Iran to resume high-level enrichment and leave the United States isolated.”
Most Democrats in Congress held off yesterday on demanding immediate action. Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who heads the Foreign Relations Committee and has been a leading sanctions advocate, said only that he would work with Republicans “in the coming weeks to ensure that Iran comprehends that we will not ever permit it to become a threshold nuclear state.”
Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was more emphatic, saying in a statement, “We should work to pass tough sanctions now, and these sanctions should go into effect immediately.”
Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, a Republican who’s pushed sanctions bills in the Senate Banking Committee, said in a statement, “The administration failed to get a good deal after one year of negotiations because it’s offered all carrots and no sticks, all diplomatic concessions and not even the hint of more economic pressure.”
In an interview, Kirk said he will seek action in January on legislation he co-sponsored with Menendez that would trigger new sanctions if Iran violates any terms of the interim agreement or an eventual final accord. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has prevented the bill from being introduced, but he’ll be succeeded in January by Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell.
The agreement that’s been extended eased the existing sanctions on Iran in return for constraints on its nuclear program. The original agreement reached a year ago specifies that “the U.S. administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the president and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”
A push for sanctions in Congress could backfire and encourage Iran to accelerate efforts to amass material for nuclear weapons, Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based research group, said in a statement.
“Those who argue that there should be no more time for diplomacy and want to impose still-tougher sanctions are pursuing a naive and dangerous path,” he said.
A push for more sanctions is inevitable once Republicans take control of the Senate in January, said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy research organization, and a former State Department policy adviser.
“There’s a reasonable discussion to be had on whether there’s a role for Congress to play to help the Iranians show greater flexibility” on its nuclear program, Maloney said, although she said her opinion is that a push for tighter sanctions could torpedo future negotiations.
“The kind of sanctions we have in place are fairly onerous,” she said. “We have unprecedented consensus around those measures. If there’s a sense of overreach on the part of the Congress, there could very well be a backlash.”
Obama could strike a middle ground with Congress by accepting the proposal for sanctions that would be implemented only if negotiations fail to yield an agreement with Iran, said Michael Singh, a former National Security Council senior director for Iran who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Such a strategy would “honor his diplomatic commitments while signaling that he nevertheless has a Plan B,” Singh said in an e-mailed response to questions.
While Iran says its nuclear research is solely for energy, industrial and medical uses, the U.S. says its shares Israel’s concerns that the program could give the government in Tehran the capability to build nuclear weapons. Israel and the U.S. haven’t ruled out the possibility of military strikes to prevent Iran from doing so.