Majority of Senators Now Support Deferred-Action Iran Sanctions Bill Opposed by Obama

January 10, 2014 - 4:29 AM

Iran sanctions

Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 24, 2013, the day Iran struck an interim nuclear agreement with the U.S. five other world powers. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

( – Showing no sign of having been swayed by the administration’s arguments, a majority of senators have now signed on to a bipartisan bill threatening toughened sanctions against Iran in case a negotiated agreement on its nuclear program fails.

At least 20 senators this week joined the list of co-sponsors of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act (S.1881) according to the congressional record, bringing the total number of supporters to 54 – double the original number when it was introduced in December. Several more were reported to be pending, bringing a filibuster-proof majority of 60 within reach.

Two-thirds majority support would be needed to override the veto which the White House has already promised in the event of passage.

The measure was introduced by a Democrat, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) and Republican Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.), and so far a further 15 Democrats have joined Republicans in co-sponsoring the measure.

Kirk on his Twitter account Thursday noted that a majority of senators now support the bill, which he described as “an insurance policy against Iran’s deception.”

Supporters say that holding the prospect of tougher sanctions over Iran’s head will discourage the regime from violating an interim agreement reached with the U.S. and five other powers in Geneva in November, or from dragging out the process beyond the timetable set down for the parties to reach a comprehensive final-status deal.

The administration counters that, even with its delayed-trigger mechanism, new sanctions legislation would be seen by Iran as a sign of bad faith, strengthen hardliners, “divide the international community” – which largely means upset Russia and China – and ultimately make military conflict more likely.

The Geneva agreement offered Tehran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program, which Western governments believe is a cover for developing a nuclear weapons capability.

It set down a six-month interim period (open to extension if the parties agree) during which Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1 seek a deal on the long-term status of the nuclear program.

The start of the six-month countdown has been delayed over “technical” differences which the State Department has declined to discuss publicly but says are being worked through privately. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday the U.S. would like to see the timeline begin “as soon as we can.”

‘We told them we wouldn’t’

Secretary of State John Kerry has not briefed senators in a public setting on the Nov. 24 agreement (he did so behind closed doors at the Capitol on December 11), but he did appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on December 10.

Asked then by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) why the U.S. should not enact new, delayed-action sanctions, to make the situation clear to the Iranians, Kerry replied, “Because we told them we wouldn’t do it while we were negotiating.”

“Because our partners don’t expect us to pass new sanctions while we’re negotiating, and because our partners, if we pass them now, you know, could get squirrelly on the whole idea of the sanctions,” he continued. “I mean, they’ll figure we're kind of doing our own thing and that we're not part of the team.”

Even if sanctions were enacted but did not immediately take force, Kerry added, “It implies a lack of faith in the process and an unwillingness to play by the rules that our partners are playing by.”

House support for new sanctions is robust. A bill introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) passed in the House by a 400-20 vote last summer.

Away from Capitol Hill, the lobbying battle over the Iran agreement and the Senate sanctions push intensified this week. First, a group of nine prominent foreign policy experts sent a letter Monday urging Menendez and Kirk not to press for a vote on S.1881, largely echoing the administration’s arguments.

“Once the new Iranian president declared his government’s readiness to negotiate immediately and seriously a comprehensive agreement to give the international community virtually everything it seeks in return for gradual sanctions relief, the Iranians had every right to assume that the U.S. and the other nations involved in the negotiations would proceed in good faith,” they wrote.

“Based on our experience born of years of dealings with Iran, we do not believe the Iranians will continue to negotiate under new or increased threats.”

(Whether the deal struck on Nov. 24 provides the international community with “virtually everything it seeks” is a major point of contention. Among other things, six U.N. Security Council resolutions between 2006 and 2010 demanded that Iran suspend “all” enrichment, but President Obama has acknowledged that the Geneva deal could leave Iran with a “modest” uranium-enrichment program. S.1881 requires Iran to dismantle all of its enrichment facilities.)

The letter’s signatories included former ambassadors Ryan Crocker, Thomas Pickering, Daniel Kurtzer and William Luers, and former undersecretary for international security affairs Frank Wisner.

On Thursday, 72 former government officials and conservative foreign policy experts wrote to congressional leaders expressing support for “efforts to enforce Iranian compliance” with the Geneva agreement.

“Congress has a chance to play an important role in making clear the consequences of Iranian violations of the interim nuclear deal, in clarifying expectations with respect to future nuclear talks with Tehran, and in creating incentives for Iran to conclude a comprehensive nuclear agreement that protects the national security interests of the United States and its allies,” they wrote.

Signatories include former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), former ambassadors Paul Bremer, William Courtney, Eric Edelman and Robert Joseph and former undersecretary for global affairs Paula Dobriansky.