White House warns new Iran bill could scuttle diplomacy

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The White House, State Department and ten Senate Committee chairs warned on Thursday that new Iran sanctions legislation introduced  by Senator Bob Menendez risks undermining U.S. diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful resolution with Iran over its nuclear  program.

“We don’t want to see action that will proactively undermine American diplomacy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at the White House Thursday. “We made it very clear to the Senate that it is not the time for new Iran sanctions. We don’t think it will be or should be enacted.”

“New sanctions would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran,” the US intelligence community wrote in an unclassified assessment provided to members of Congress December 10th.

The assessment was cited by 10 Senate Committee chairs in an unusual letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urging against new Iran sanctions at this time.

“At this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail,” the ten Senate committee chairs wrote, in a letter to Reid that was signed by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin (D-Michigan), Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-California), Commerce Committee Chair John Rockefeller (West Virginia), Homeland Security Committee chair Tom Carper, Energy Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and Health, Education and Labor Committee chair Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Several veteran Hill hands expressed amazement at what one called the “unprecedented” letter by the ten Senate committee chairs, several of whom are Jewish, for publicly countering a fellow Senate committee chair Menendez and AIPAC, which has been pressing members of Congress to back the measure. “The new Senate bill defines parameters for a final agreement with Iran,” AIPAC wrote in a Tweet Thursday.

Sen. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chair of the Senate foreign relations panel, on Thursday introduced the Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 on behalf of 26 Senators, including several facing reelection races next year. Among the co-sponsors were Senators Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania).

The draft bill could preclude a diplomatic agreement with Iran by calling for a final deal in which Iran would dismantle all of its “enrichment and reprocessing  capabilities and facilities,” among other constraints that Iran is unlikely to accept. The US and five world powers agreed in an interim nuclear deal with Iran signed last month that Iran could eventually be allowed to be a normal member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if it comes into compliance with its obligations under the treaty.

Senators backing the legislation “claim they want a chance for diplomacy,  but at the very first chance of diplomacy they are eager to snuff it out before giving it a chance to work,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Thursday. “One day they will have to answer the question if they want war, and if not, what options are they putting on the table that are based on reality rather than political calculation and fantasy.”

Asked for a response to the administration’s charges that his legislation risked undermining prospects for diplomacy, Adam Sharon, a spokesman for Menendez on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said to refer to his appearance on Face the Nation a few weeks ago.