Iran deal: US signals it's not going soft, slaps measures on more companies

The move was clearly done with Congress in mind, as lawmakers threaten new sanctions despite the administration's pleas to hold off while world powers try to negotiate a comprehensive deal with Iran.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the hope of persuading Congress to not forge any new economic sanctions on Iran that could break the recent historic agreement that would end Iran's progress toward weapons-grade uranium.

In a move designed to convince Congress that a recent nuclear deal does not mean the US is going soft on Iran, the Obama administration on Thursday hit an additional two dozen companies and individuals with punitive measures for aiding Iran’s nuclear program.

The designation – for Iranian and foreign companies and individuals found contributing to Iran’s progress in uranium enrichment and evading existing US and international sanctions – comes as the administration tries to head off mounting pressure in Congress for a new round of sanctions against Iran.

The Obama administration maintains that additional sanctions now could drive Iran away from the negotiating table and could scuttle the “first step” deal that the United States and five other world powers reached with Iran last month. That deal offers Iran $7 billion in sanctions relief in exchange for a partial freeze and rollback of its uranium enrichment program, and it’s aimed at allowing at least six additional months of talks for reaching a comprehensive deal with Tehran.

Announcing the new measures Thursday morning, administration officials emphasized that enforcement of existing sanctions would not waver even as the US and other world powers pursue a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear challenge.

“Today’s actions should be a stark reminder to businesses, banks, and brokers everywhere that we will continue relentlessly to enforce our sanctions, even as we explore the possibility of a long-term, comprehensive resolution of our concerns with Iran’s nuclear program,” said David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence in the Treasury Department.

In a joint statement, the Treasury and State Departments said the US would “remain committed to vigorously enforcing our sanctions regime and to exposing the Government of Iran’s efforts to use deceptive practices and front companies to further its nuclear program.”

That message was clearly aimed at Congress, which is threatening new sanctions despite the administration’s pleas to hold off to give diplomacy a chance.

Secretary of State John Kerry was on the Hill Tuesday to defend the administration’s approach, while Mr. Cohen and Wendy Sherman, undersecretary of State for political affairs and the chief US negotiator in the Iran talks, were set to appear Thursday afternoon at a Senate hearing on the interim deal reached Nov. 24 in Geneva.

The congressional appearances follow Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s declaration to Time magazine this week that “the entire deal is dead” if Congress passes new sanctions.

Secretary Kerry used his appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to try to convince a dubious Congress that the administration is not naive about Iran but that the interim deal represents the best chance for resolving Iran’s nuclear challenge through diplomacy.

Saying the deal is “not about trust,” Kerry said it is a way to “test” Iran’s insistence that its nuclear program is designed for uniquely peaceful purposes.

As part of an effort to demonstrate that the administration is not pie-in-the-sky about Iran’s intentions, Kerry placed himself among those who remain “rightly skeptical” about Iran’s readiness to live up to the interim deal. “I came away from [Geneva] with serious questions about whether or not [Iran is] ready and willing to make some of the choices” that a comprehensive deal would require.

While the time may come for additional sanctions, Congress should hold off during negotiations toward a comprehensive deal, Kerry said.

A new sanctions bill being discussed in the Senate calls for a six-month grace period before imposition of the new sanctions to allow Iran and the six world powers – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany – to reach a comprehensive deal. The proposed legislation allows for extending the grace period for up to 60 days if negotiators appear to be getting close to a deal.

The deal that the six powers reached with Iran – and under which the US committed to applying no new sanctions – is to be in effect for six months, during which negotiations are to proceed toward working out a comprehensive deal. The agreement allows for an extension of up to six months, or a year in all, for reaching a final deal.

Despite what appears to be overwhelming bipartisan support for additional sanctions, passage of legislation anytime soon remains in doubt. A Senate bill would have to be reconciled with legislation that passed in the House last summer in a lopsided 400-to-20 vote.

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