Despite strong support for a bill in the Senate to slap new
sanctions on the Islamic Republic, analysts, lawmakers and
congressional aides said on Monday that the agreement to begin
implementing a nuclear deal on January 20 makes it harder for
sanctions supporters to attract more backers.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, was one of
several of the 59 co-sponsors who said there is no clamor for a vote
any time soon.
"I want to talk to some of my colleagues. I'm encouraged and
heartened by the apparent progress and certainly the last thing I
want to do is impede that progress. But at the same time, sanctions
are what has brought the Iranians to the table," he told reporters.
Sixteen of Obama's fellow Democrats are among the co-sponsors of the
measure requiring further cuts in Iran's oil exports if Tehran backs
away from the interim agreement, despite Iran warning that it would
back away from the negotiating table if any new sanctions measure
The current list of supporters is close to the 60 needed to pass
most legislation in the 100-member Senate. But 67 votes would be
required to overcome a veto, which Obama has threatened as he tries
to reach a wider agreement with Iran to prevent it from developing
an atomic bomb.
"The prospects for a diplomatic solution could implode if Iran
leaves the table or if Iran responds with their own provocative
actions," said Colin Kahl, who served as a Middle East expert at the
Pentagon until 2011 and now teaches security studies at Georgetown
"Even if neither happens, Iran's moderate negotiators would likely
harden their negotiating positions in the next phase to guard their
right flank at home against inevitable charges of American 'bad
faith,' making a final compromise harder to achieve," he said.
The bill in the Senate would cut Iran's oil exports to almost zero
two years after enactment, place penalties on other industries and
reduce Obama's power to issue a waiver on Iran sanctions, if Iran
were to break the interim deal.
Supporters say it is necessary to pass a bill now rather than wait
to see if Iran complies with the agreement in order to pressure
Tehran to negotiate in good faith and not to keep developing nuclear
weapons while talks continue.
"If the Iranians have their way, they'll drag it out forever,"
Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican co-sponsor of the measure,
Iranian officials say their nuclear program is peaceful.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Mark
Kirk of Illinois, the measure's lead sponsors, are trying to attract
more supporters, hoping to pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry
Reid to allow a vote on the legislation.
Pro-Israel lobbying groups, convinced that Iran cannot be trusted,
are also pushing lawmakers to sign on in the hope of increasing the
pressure on Reid, a Nevada Democrat, to let the bill move ahead.
But there is no guarantee that all the senators who co-sponsored the
sanctions move would actually vote for any final bill, and even less
that Democrats would override a veto by a president from their own
Backers of the sanctions bill said they could force Reid's hand by
putting a hold on nominations by the administration — such as dozens
pending for State Department positions.
But Senate leadership aides — including Republicans — acknowledge
that the chamber's rules give Reid enough leeway to block any
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DEMOCRATS IN LINE
Stopping — or delaying — new sanctions is also made easier because
there is a strong core of lawmakers — including senior Democrats — who strongly oppose them. Ten powerful committee chairs signed a
letter in December opposing the new sanctions, and none of those 10
has changed position.
An aide to Menendez, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, said there had been no indication by Monday on when the
sanctions bill might come to the floor.
Analysts said there had been real concern about a delay in
implementing the interim agreement reached in Geneva between Iran
and the so-called P5+1 powers in November.
But Sunday's announcement of the start date eases those fears.
"It shows that they are moving ahead, and what that means is that
Iran's not delaying, which was a fear," said Michael Adler, an
expert on Iran at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.
The interim six-month agreement freezes Iran's most sensitive atomic
work — higher-level enrichment — in return for an estimated $7
billion in relief from sanctions.
It appeared to arrest a drift toward possible military strikes on
Iran by the United States or Israel.
The Obama administration has been pushing U.S. lawmakers hard not to
support the Senate sanctions bill. Wendy Sherman, the Under
Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and the lead U.S.
negotiator with Iran, held a conference call with lawmakers and
senior staff on Sunday night.
State Department officials held another on Monday morning, and
congressional staff members said they anticipated one or more
classified briefings for lawmakers during the week.
Obama has also invited the entire Senate Democratic caucus to the
White House on Wednesday evening for a discussion of issues expected
to include Iran, congressional sources said.
Obama on Monday called on Congress to hold off and said the
international community will be able to verify whether Iran is
complying with the interim deal.
"My preference is for peace and diplomacy and this is one of the
reasons why I've sent a message to Congress that now is not the time
for us to impose new sanctions," Obama told reporters. "Now is the
time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their
Iran and the P5+1 countries — the United States, Russia, China,
France, Britain and Germany — will likely meet again in February.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan;
editing by Alistair Bell,
Peter Henderson and Eric Walsh)
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