US Democrats Hold Off on New Iran Sanctions
Key Democratic US senators said they would put off supporting new Iran sanctions for at least two months, after a threat by President Barack Obama to veto a bill he said could scuttle talks with Tehran over its nuclear program.
With Republicans holding 54 seats in the 100-member chamber and needing 67 votes to override a veto, they would need significant support from Obama's fellow Democrats to pass the bill against Obama's wishes.
The co-author of legislation to tighten the sanctions, Senator Robert Menendez, said on Tuesday he and other Democrats would not back passage of the bill unless talks between the major powers and Iran failed to produce a framework agreement by March 24, Reuters reported.
Obama has pledged to veto any bill imposing new sanctions, which are strongly supported by Republicans, passed while the talks between Tehran and major powers go on.
After more than 18 months of negotiations, the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia have agreed with Iran to try to reach a political understanding by the end of March, with a view to a full-blown deal by a self-imposed June 30 deadline.
Menendez said he and nine other Democratic senators had sent a letter to Obama saying they would not back a new sanctions bill in the full Senate before March 24.
"In acknowledgement of your concern regarding congressional action on legislation at this moment, we will not vote for this legislation on the Senate floor before March 24," read the letter, according to the Hill.
Menendez also told a Senate Banking Committee hearing that he and his Democratic colleagues still hoped for a diplomatic solution but were "deeply skeptical" about Iran's willingness to make concessions that would allow a deal by the deadline.
Iran says its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes but Washington and others claim it may be covertly seeking the capability to build nuclear weapons.
The banking panel, which oversees sanctions legislation in the Senate, is still expected to vote on Thursday on a bill co-authored by Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the Senate committee hearing that he had not seen the letter, but was amenable to Menendez's plan. "We appreciate the recognition that our negotiators could use additional time and space," he said.
Four leading European foreign policy officials warned last Thursday in an opinion piece in The Washington Post that new sanctions legislation against Iran could torpedo efforts to secure a long-term agreement.
The bill would impose sanctions on Iran only if it fails to reach a comprehensive agreement by June 30. It also includes provisions that would allow Obama to waive the requirement for new sanctions to provide additional negotiating flexibility.
The Iran issue took on a strongly partisan tone in Washington last week when Republican leaders announced that they had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran, without consulting the Obama administration or congressional Democrats.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, asked whether the administration might drop its opposition to extra sanctions if no framework deal were reached with Iran by the end of March said, "We can discuss that at that point."
Democratic members of the banking panel who backed the new sanctions said they would vote for the bill when it comes before the committee on Thursday, but would wait until March to see if there is a deal before pushing ahead in the full Senate.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would make a decision on the timing of a vote on the bill in the full chamber only after it was passed by the committee.
Iran and the major powers are due to meet again in February after limited progress in talks in Geneva on January 18.
***White House Welcomes Delay
The Obama administration welcomed Democratic senators' move to delay the push for new sanctions against Iran, Reuters quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying on Tuesday.
"It's a welcome step in terms of providing some space for the negotiation to go forward as we see what we can accomplish by the end of March," said the senior administration official.
Meanwhile, the Hill reported that Republican Senator Ted Cruz has said McConnell should bring an Iran sanctions bill to the Senate floor immediately.
"I think it has been heartbreaking to see how few Democrats, even to this day, are willing to stand up to the Obama administration when it comes to the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability," he said.
Iran denies its nuclear work may have any military objectives.
In addition, the spokesperson for the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee announced on Wednesday that 80 lawmakers have signed a bill that would terminate the interim nuclear deal that Iran and the major powers reached in November 2013 if new sanctions were imposed on Iran.
Hossein Naqavi Hosseini said the bill has not been submitted to the Majlis presiding board yet, IRNA reported.
Under the preliminary agreement, Iran agreed to temporarily scale down parts of its nuclear activities in exchange for limited sanctions relief until a long-term settlement is worked out.