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 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.
But even as the Obama administration got increasing signs Congress would likely hold off on new Iran sanctions legislation for the rest of the year, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) warned that he would consider drafting a resolution on what the final agreement with Iran should include.
“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,” Johnson said.
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.
“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 witnesses.
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, though it cannot build any elements that would fuel it; and will now provide International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors regular access to the facility as well as long sought design information. Corker also asked whether the US had tacitly ceded to Iran that it 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 talk about Iran suspending, but not permanently ending enrichment.
Expressing deep skepticism about Iranian intentions and noting earlier administration calls to hold off on proposed Iran sanctions legislation, New Jersey Democrat Robert 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 has reportedly been considering co-sponsoring an Iran sanctions resolution with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), but it currently seems unlikely that it 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.
“I know I have been a proponent of pursuing additional sanctions prospectively…[as] an insurance policy,” Menendez said.
“But I’m beginning to think, based upon all of this, 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 said. “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.”
“It may be defining that through a resolution may be a course of action that would affect the ultimate outcome here, which is obviously the most important one,” he said, adding he was putting on the record his skepticism about administration arguments that the sanctions would unravel the international coalition, having heard it before.
But Sherman and Cohen pushed back against the critique, saying while skepticism about whether a deal can be reached is warranted, the American people wanted to see if a diplomatic resolution could be achieved, and the recent engagement with Iran had produced the first agreement in almost a decade.
“Given the absolute certainty that Congress can legislate if the Iranians don’t fulfill their obligations under the joint plan, or are unable to reach a long-term agreement… [it] just seems to me that it’s not a risk worth taking right now,” Cohen said.
“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.”
(Photo of Under Secretary of State Wendy Sheman and Under Secretary of the Treasury David Cohen by Getty.)