As more Iran talks loom, Obama presses senators to hold off on new sanctions

President Obama talked to a bipartisan group of senators Tuesday about the potential interim deal with Iran. Although some lawmakers are not satisfied with such a deal, it appears that no new sanctions are likely to pass Congress at least until December.

Evan Vucci/AP
Pres. Barack Obama speaks at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council annual meeting in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. President Obama answered questions on the economy, healthcare.gov, immigration reform, and negotiations with Iran.

The clouds hanging over the next round of Iranian nuclear talks lifted a bit Tuesday as President Obama pressed senators to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran in order to give diplomacy a chance.

After a two-hour meeting at the White House during which the president explained to a bipartisan group of senators how an interim deal with Iran would work and what it would achieve, it appeared that no new sanctions are likely to pass Congress at least until December.

Mr. Obama told the senators – six Democrats and four Republicans – that new sanctions “should not be enacted during the current negotiations, but that they would be most effective as a robust response should negotiations fail,” the White House said in a statement.

In comments after the meeting, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, one of the Republicans at the meeting, told reporters that some senators were “satisfied” with the details of the interim plan that world powers are proposing to Iran, while others were “very unsatisfied.” But, he indicated, any new measures targeting Iran’s economy are unlikely before next month. 

Later in a statement, Senator Corker said it was procedural hurdles put up by Democrats that “blocked the Senate from taking any action on Iran this week.”

The next round of talks is set for Thursday and Friday in Geneva. The six powers negotiating with Iran – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany – are also scheduled to meet in a planning session Wednesday evening.

The pre-negotiations meeting of the six powers could be crucial, since the last round of talks earlier this month broke up after France protested that the deal the powers were preparing to offer did not demand enough from Iran.

France could scuttle an accord on an interim plan, although French President François Hollande insisted in Israel this week that France does not “want to disturb or block anything.”

Obama argued for an interim deal to allow time – perhaps six months – to negotiate a permanent agreement to verifiably stop Iran’s advancing nuclear program before it can reach the point of building a nuclear weapon.

The interim deal that the powers are proposing to Iran, the president said, “would halt progress on the Iranian nuclear program and roll it back in key respects,” according to the White House statement. Without a first-step deal, Obama added, “Iran will continue to make progress on its nuclear program by increasing its enrichment capacity, continuing to grow its stockpile of enriched uranium, installing advanced centrifuges, and making progress on the plutonium track at the Arak reactor.”

After the meeting, Corker said that a chief concern among those who are “very unsatisfied” is that “whatever you do on the interim basis becomes the new norm.”

Some members of Congress, but also some world leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and France’s Mr. Hollande, have said they fear Iran could accept the interim deal – which offers some measure of sanctions relief in exchange for freezing parts of its program – and then balk at concluding a comprehensive agreement.

At the White House meeting, Obama stressed to senators that any sanctions relief would be “limited, temporary, and reversible” and that the bulk of sanctions would continue to be enforced during the six months of negotiating a permanent solution.

Obama also emphasized to senators that reports claiming that Iran would receive as much as $50 billion of economic relief under a partial plan are “inaccurate,” according to the White House. 

Yet even if Obama won some points – and some space – with Tuesday’s meeting, it remains far from clear that Congress will hold off on additional sanctions while any comprehensive agreement is negotiated with Iran, as Obama has asked.

Already a bipartisan group of senators – some of whom attended Tuesday’s meeting – are warning the administration that the proposed interim plan offers Iran too much while getting too little in return. “We feel strongly that any easing of sanctions along the lines that the [group of world powers] is reportedly considering should require Iran to roll back its nuclear program more significantly than now envisioned,” the senators said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.

The lawmakers’ letter carried an undertone of suspicion that the administration may be so anxious for a diplomatic solution with Iran that it could accept a deal that gives Tehran too much for too little in return.

Despite Obama’s hard sell Tuesday, such concerns have been bolstered by the French, with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius calling the proposed interim plan a “sucker’s deal.” And Hollande set France apart from the pack by telling his Israeli hosts this week that among the six powers there were some – he didn’t name whom – “that the mere signing of an agreement was an achievement for them.”

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