WASHINGTON — Hawkish senators are still pushing for new sanctions on Iran after the interim nuclear deal reached this weekend, but new sanctions don’t seem likely to become reality — at least for now.
Members ranging from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer have made clear they want Congress to move forward with new sanctions regardless of the deal. But even some of the most ardent in the pro-sanctions crowd appear prepared to give the administration some time to see if the deal works out before taking concrete steps to apply new sanctions.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appeared to pull back ever so slightly from his promise to bring a bill to the floor when the Senate returns next month.
“You know, what I said last week, I still feel the same way today,” Reid said in an interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm.
“[Sen.] Dianne Feinstein, for example, put out a strong statement today — she’s chair of the Intelligence Committee — she supports the arrangement by the president and his team and, of course, John Kerry. Sen. McCain was cautiously optimistic,” Reid pointed out.
“When we come back we will take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions … [we] will study this, [we] will hold hearings if necessary, and if we need work on this, if we need stronger sanctions, I am sure we will do that,” he added.
Significantly, Reid’s comments appear to have come after he consulted with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I have spoken to him about this — he being PM Netanyahu — of course they are concerned. That’s why I have indicated that I will take a look at this when I get back, all aspects of it. But we all have to acknowledge that it’s an important first step,” Reid said.
While Reid is typically loathe to break with Obama, at least openly, he also has a strong relationship with Netanyahu, one source close to the leader said, and it appears he’s trying to find a way forward that balances those two loyalties.
A senior administration official emphasized Monday on a call with reporters that the White House would not support new sanctions.
“We believe that any sanctions that are passed during negotiations would do several things that would be unhelpful,” the official said.
The administration’s message to Congress is “it’s not going to be difficult to pass sanctions if and when it comes to that, so there’s no urgency to get a piece of legislation out now,” according to the official.
The official would not say if President Obama would veto new sanctions. “That’s a hypothetical because a bill hasn’t been passed,” the official said.
Secretary of State John Kerry, in remarks early Sunday, said in the event of new sanctions, “the president has the possibility of a veto.”
Although Reid’s office declined to expound on his comments, a senior Democratic leadership aide said that despite Schumer’s calls for more sanctions, that’s unlikely to happen in the short term.
“My sense is people are going to wait to see if Iran does what it said it’ll do,” the aide said. “The deal is an important one, both for our national security and for the diplomatic process and my sense is people are anxious to be fully briefed and to be sure the agreement is working before jumping headlong into another round of sanction talk.”
“The current global sanctions against Iran remain in place and have been crippling. There’s a strong argument to be made that those sanctions helped push Iran to these talks and this agreement. What they do next will likely determine Senate action,” this source added.
How long Reid can hold off from acting on sanctions, however, remains unclear. There appears to be a bipartisan majority in both chambers that would back expanding them, even if it means undercutting the administration’s deal. And while the agreement gives the White House some temporary breathing room, if Iran appears to be reneging on the deal, pressure could quickly mount for congressional action.
Senate members who have been leading the charge for new sanctions are not likely to try to impose those sanctions immediately. Instead, new sanctions would likely be imposed in the event that Iran breaks the deal, or when the six-month interim deal is up. Congress’ focus is shifting to enforcing the deal and forcing it into final deal status.
“With this agreement, the role of Congress will shift from bulldog to watchdog,” one senior Senate aide told BuzzFeed. “What was to be a new sanctions bill to win Iranian concessions now becomes a Damocles to enforce this agreement and ensure it doesn’t become a never-ending first step. The president should expect bipartisan enforcement legislation on his desk before Christmas.”
Some senators are sticking to their guns on immediate new sanctions. “There is now an even more urgent need for Congress to increase sanctions until Iran completely abandons its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities,” Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement this weekend.
But others are allowing some leeway in appearing to support legislation that would impose new sanctions only under certain conditions.
“I will continue working with my colleagues to craft bipartisan legislation that will impose tough new economic sanctions if Iran undermines this interim accord or if the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not underway by the end of this six-month period,” Sen. Mark Kirk said in a statement after the deal was announced.
“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,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, another key pro-sanctions voice, in a statement over the weekend.