Congress likely to hold off on Iran sanctions, Senator proposes defining final deal

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After top US officials testified Thursday on the Iran nuclear deal signed in Geneva last month, the chair of the Senate Banking panel appeared to speak for the majority of the body when he cautiously endorsed the Obama administration’s call that Congress hold off on new Iran sanctions for now, but warned that lawmakers would act swiftly if Iran and six world powers are unable to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement in negotiations over the next six months.

Even as the Obama administration got welcome signs Congress would likely hold off on new Iran sanctions legislation for the rest of the year, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said that he would consider drafting a resolution on what the final agreement with Iran should include–potentially adding another complication to the already difficult diplomatic task at hand.

“I’m beginning to think… that maybe what the Senate needs to do is define the end game and at least what it finds as acceptable as the final status,’ Menendez (D-New Jersey) told the US officials who testified on the Iran deal at the Senate Banking committee hearing Thursday.  “Because I’m getting nervous about what I perceive will be acceptable to [the administration] as the final status versus what …the Congress might view as acceptable.”

While several Senators expressed skepticism about whether Iran could be trusted, they also expressed hope for a diplomatic resolution to the Iran nuclear dispute, and appeared inclined to acquiesce for now to the administration’s case that the current moment of productive engagement warranted a pause in new pressure that could shift the Iranian political dynamic back in favor of hardliners.

“If no final deal is reached [or] Iran fails to comply with the first step agreement, this committee will act swiftly to impose a new round of sanctions,” Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) said at the conclusion of the hearing, which featured as witnesses top US Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Under Secretary of Treasury David Cohen. “In the meantime, I agree with today’s witnesses that a pause on new sanctions legislation is justified to see if such a deal is possible.”

“I think all of us want to see a diplomatic solution to Iran and have been encouraged by the fact that the administration has been dealing with them in this way,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) told the hearing.

But, Corker added, the text of the six month, Phase 1 “Joint Plan of Action,” signed by Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva on November 24, had elements of concern to him.  Among them, he said, why Iran is able to still pursue physical construction to the still-uncompleted Arak heavy water facility during the Phase 1 deal, though it cannot build any elements that would fuel it; and will now provide International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors regular access to, as well as long sought design information on the site. Corker also asked whether the US had tacitly agreed that Iran would have enrichment in an end state deal.

“Do the officials in Iran think that we’ve agreed to allow them to enrich?” Corker asked Under Secretary Sherman. “I mean, every press statement they’ve made says that, how could there be such a big understanding over such an important issue?”

“What we have said to Iran… is that yes, we will talk with them about the potential for a very limited enrichment program, matched to practical needs, with staggering constraints, monitoring, and verification, if, if, if they agree to everything else that we want agreed to,” Sherman responded, going on to note the UN Security Council resolutions demand that Iran suspend, but not permanently end, enrichment.

Expressing skepticism about administration arguments that new sanctions could jeopardize talks and their international coalition, Sen. Menendez suggested that the Senate might move in the future to draft a resolution on what should be in a final deal with Iran.

Menendez, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, has reportedly been considering co-sponsoring an Iran sanctions resolution with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), but it currently seems unlikely that the measure would be brought to the floor for a vote by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) before the Senate breaks next week for the rest of the year. A separate, non-binding House resolution calling for more Iran sanctions was also reported to be collapsing Thursday after its expected co-sponsor Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) withdrew his support for it.

But Sherman and Cohen pushed back against Menendez’s critique, saying while it is uncertain that a final nuclear deal with Iran can be reached, that the American people clearly want to see if the issue can be resolved peacefully, and noting that the recent engagement with Iran had produced the first agreement with Iran in almost a decade.

“We now have an understanding with Iran of action it is to take,” Shermain said. “Because we are at this different place, we should react and respond somewhat differently.”

We “should test the agreement,” Sherman added, “because that is what the American people want, that is what the United States Congress wants… and that’s the right thing to do.”

The administration may not be overly concerned about Menendez’s proposal, a former senior administration official said. “Any Senate resolution would be a sense of the Senate, and hence non-binding,” the former U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday.  “It may be helpful negotiating leverage for the Administration to have a Senate text in their back-pocket as they engage their Iranian counterparts in the New Year.”

(Photo of Under Secretary of State Wendy Sheman and Under Secretary of the Treasury David Cohen by Getty.)