Is Congress about to kill Iran nuclear deal against Obama's wishes?

Congress appears to be moving toward approving new sanctions against Iran with a veto-proof majority, potentially undermining the interim nuclear deal now being implemented.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey, seen here in a hearing on Capitol Hill last week, has been a leading voice in the push to pass new sanctions against Iran.

President Obama is warning Congress against steps that could scuttle a deal that he says is the best chance to peacefully stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

But a dubious Congress appears close to taking veto-proof action to approve new economic sanctions on Iran – a step the United States has specifically agreed not to take in the nuclear accord with Iran, and one which officials from countries that are party to the agreement say would likely doom diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Some Iran experts say new sanctions would only bolster the hardliners in Iran who want negotiations to fail. But others say new sanctions are needed to disabuse Tehran of any notion that the interim plan put in motion an unraveling of sanctions that will be hard if not impossible to put back in place.

A new round of rhetorical confrontation between the White House and Congress was set off by Sunday’s agreement between Iran and six world powers – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany – on an implementation plan for the interim nuclear accord reached in November.

The interim accord aims to give negotiators the breathing space of six to 12 months to reach a comprehensive agreement for verifiably ensuring Iran never builds a nuclear weapon. Beginning Jan. 20, under the implementation agreement, Iran over six months will destroy its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium – a level only a few technical steps away from bomb-grade uranium – and take other steps to roll back some of its nuclear progress.

In return, Iran will receive up to $7 billion in sanctions relief during the next six months, according to the White House – some $4.2 billion of that in unfrozen oil revenues.

In what was clearly a message to Congress, Mr. Obama said in a statement Sunday night that “for the sake of our national security and the peace and security of the world, now is the time to give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”

A senior administration official on Sunday reiterated Obama’s vow to veto any new sanctions approved by Congress, saying, “The important progress reached [with Sunday’s implementation plan] further underscores the risk of taking action that could derail these negotiations and deny us the progress that has been achieved in halting the Iranian program and rolling it back for the first time in a decade.”

But some members of Congress are sounding a different note and vowing action they say will help guarantee that Iran remains under pressure to conclude a permanent deal denying it the ability to ever build a nuclear weapon.

Blasting Sunday’s implementation plan for giving “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism billions of dollars while allowing the mullahs to keep their illicit nuclear infrastructure in place,” Sen. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois said Sunday that the US could not afford to lighten the pressure on Iran.

Saying he fears the US strategy will “either lead to Iranian nuclear weapons or to Israeli air strikes,” Senator Kirk said “it’s time for the United States Senate to pass common-sense bipartisan legislation, now cosponsored by 59 senators, to ensure this process leads to the peaceful dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program.”

The number of cosponsors alone puts the Senate legislation close to the two-thirds vote (67 senators) that would be required to overcome a presidential veto. 

Kirk noted in his statement that the Senate legislation would not impose any newly approved sanctions while negotiations are under way “so long as Iran complies with the terms of the interim step agreement and concludes a final agreement to dismantle its illicit nuclear infrastructure.”

Iran says any new sanctions would be a violation of the accord the US signed on to, and threatens to walk away from negotiations toward a permanent agreement if any are approved. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, seen as a moderate who has to deal with hardliners against negotiations at home, has said “the deal is dead” if any new sanctions are passed.

But Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and co-sponsor with Kirk of the Senate sanctions legislation, said Iran’s actions since the interim agreement was reached Nov. 23 prove that additional pressure is needed now.

“The need for additional prospective sanctions is already clear,” Senator Menendez said in a statement Friday. “This [legislation] is hardly a march to war.” 

In a new report Monday, the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies says that “growth-hungry companies” from around the world, sensing the advent of a “more permissive sanctions environment,” have flocked to Iran just since the interim accord was reached at the end of November.

Foreign participation in Iranian trade fairs in the last quarter of last year – when the interim plan was being negotiated and then approved – jumped by 70 percent compared with the same period a year earlier, the FDD says.

Mark Dubowitz, FDD’s executive director, says the foundation’s analysis suggests the sanctions relief provided Iran in the interim accord will be worth a lot more than the $7 billion the administration claims.

The sanctions relief has prompted a shift from “despair to hope” on Iran’s economy both inside and outside the country, Mr. Dubowitz says. The concessions Iran won concerning its petrochemical and auto industries will have multiplying impact given the importance of those two sectors to Iran’s economy.

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