When President Obama announced on Saturday that international negotiators had reached an interim deal to begin resolving concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, he also pleaded with Congress to abstain from passing any new economic sanctions that could scuttle the nascent agreement.
“Over the last few years, Congress has been a key partner in imposing sanctions on the Iranian government, and that bipartisan effort made possible the progress that was achieved today,” he said. “However, now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions, because doing so would derail this promising first step, alienate us from our allies and risk unraveling the coalition that enabled our sanctions to be enforced in the first place.”
Reaction to the agreement on Capitol Hill veered toward the sharply skeptical, even among some of the president’s closest Democratic allies.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the agreement “makes a nuclear Iran more likely” in a statement, urging Congress to “increase sanctions until Iran completely abandons its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.”
On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., predicted, “You’re going to see a strong movement in the United States Senate to move ahead to tighten sanctions.”
Even some stalwart allies of the administration signaled the likelihood of a new round of sanctions. Several key Democrats said they simply don’t trust the Iranians enough to ease the punitive economic measures that have brought Iran to the bargaining table
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the number three Democrat in the Senate, said the interim agreement offered Iran too much relief in exchange for too flimsy a guarantee.
The “disproportionality of this agreement makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when we return in December,” he said in a statement. “I intend to discuss that possibility with my colleagues.”
On a conference call late Saturday evening, the administration seemed to recognize its predicament, reiterating the president’s aversion to new sanctions but allowing that Congress may decide to go its own way.
“To the extent permissible within our political system, we have committed to refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions,” a senior administration official told reporters. “That does not prevent us from implementing and enforcing our existing nuclear-related sanctions, which, of course, we will do, or from imposing new sanctions targeting Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism or its abysmal human rights record.”
Administration officials have emphasized that, while the deal does roll back some peripheral elements of the current sanctions architecture, the most economically pernicious sanctions will remain in effect as negotiations continue. Sanctions on precious metals, automobile, and petrochemical exports, for example, would be temporarily suspended, but the more effectual sanctions maligning Iran’s banking and oil sectors would remain in effect.
At least some in Congress were prepared to follow the lead of the president and Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the deal in Geneva and said on ABC’s “This Week” that this is “not the moment to increase sanctions.”
In a statement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, “By any standard, this agreement is a giant step forward and should not be undermined by additional sanctions at this time.”
But the lion’s share of reaction was considerably more pessimistic about the short-term agreement, and considerably more aggressive about the question of new sanctions.
Several key lawmakers raised the possibility of a contingent sanctions package that could be held in abeyance for a period of time to see whether Iran fulfills its promises and could be levied on top of the current sanctions if the deal goes south.
“I do not believe we should further reduce our sanctions, nor abstain from preparations to impose new sanctions on Iran should the talks fail,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a statement. “I expect that the forthcoming sanctions legislation to be considered by the Senate will provide for a six month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran, but will at the same time be immediately available should the talks falter or Iran fail to implement or breach the interim agreement.”
On CNN Saturday evening, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., offered a similar proposal. “I think you will see the Congress impose the additional sanctions that won’t take place for six months, with some conditions if Iran meets certain conditions they will never go into effect at all,” he predicted. “We will define what the success will look like before the sanctions can be waived in the future. The Congress will be focused on the outcome.”
On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., welcomed the agreement as a “marginal improvement,” but he said additional sanctions might be needed, so long as they’re not “implemented for six months, assuming the Iranians do what they say they’re going to do.”
Appearing directly after Hoyer on “Face the Nation,” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., agreed, warning the president against “over-selling” the short-term agreement and urging U.S. negotiators to “remember who we’re dealing with.”
The delayed-onset sanctions could offer lawmakers a way to beat their chest and keep Iran in line without endangering the fragile accord reached between international negotiators on Saturday. Still, it is not clear whether such a proposal would pass muster with the Iranians, who have warned that the imposition of any additional sanctions would blow up the emerging agreement.
On Tuesday, before the deal was announced, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said during a floor speech that the Senate would likely move forward with a new round of sanctions after the Thanksgiving holiday. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., whose committee has primary jurisdiction over economic sanctions, has not tipped his cards one way or another, but he has generally followed Reid’s lead on the matter.