WASHINGTON — Congress and President Barack Obama are on a fast track toward confrontation over sanctions on Iran.
A bipartisan group of senators is pushing a new round of penalties despite the president's warning that they would scuttle delicate talks underway to prevent Tehran from being able to develop a nuclear weapon.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee's hearing Wednesday on Iranian sanctions is the opening round of the new Republican-led Congress' first foreign policy fight with the White House.
Time is running out to reach a deal with Iran, which claims its nuclear program is peaceful and exists only to produce energy for civilian use.
Talks have been extended until July, with the goal of reaching a framework for a deal by the end of March. Both Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani face stiff opposition to negotiations from conservatives in their respective homelands. Moreover, a GOP-victory in the 2016 presidential election would make renewed talks with Iran unlikely.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is working on legislation that would allow lawmakers to take an up-down vote on any deal the U.S. reaches with Iran. The Senate banking panel is taking up another piece of legislation that would ramp up sanctions against Iran if no deal is reached.
Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he's worried that Iran is holding firm while the U.S., the European Union and the other international partners move closer to the Iranian point of view.
"Whether it's the intelligence agencies in Israel or the people we deal with around the world, I have had no one yet say that Congress weighing in on this deal would do anything but strengthen the administration's hand and help cause this process to come to fruition," Corker said Tuesday.
Obama came out swinging last Friday, telling Congress he would veto any Iran sanctions bill that lands on his desk. "Hold your fire," Obama told Congress while standing at the White House alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, who took the unusual step of calling U.S. senators to lobby against a sanctions bill.
Obama said if there is new sanctions legislation, Iran could walk away and say the "United States was operating in bad faith and blew up the deal." And he said the willingness of America's international partners to enforce existing sanctions against Iran would wane.
"The sanctions that we have in place now would potentially fray because imposing these sanctions are a hardship on a number of countries around the world," Obama said. "They would love to be able to buy Iranian oil."
Republicans worry that the Iranians are just buying time so they can continue enhancing their nuclear programs. Freshman Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has gone so far as to call the negotiations a "dangerous farce." Republicans and some Democrats argue that having more sanctions lying in wait would push Iran to make more concessions at the negotiating table.
A confidential United Nations report released Tuesday said Iran currently is honoring its commitment not to expand atomic activities that could be used to make weapons while it negotiates a deal. The report, obtained by The Associated Press shortly after it was posted on the internal website of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, could be used by the White House to argue that Iran is negotiating seriously.
A bill drafted by Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey would not impose any new sanctions during the remaining timeline for negotiations. A draft of the bill says that if there is no deal by July 6, the sanctions that were eased during negotiations would be reinstated. After that, sanctions would be stepped up every month.
On Aug. 3, new sanctions would take effect on Iran's petroleum industry, followed on Sept. 7 by new restraints on nations that import Iranian oil. On Oct. 5, the U.S. would slap travel and financial sanctions against more Iranian officials. On Nov. 2, new sanctions would be levied on foreign banks that do transactions with Iran's central bank. And then on Dec. 7, the U.S. would impose more sanctions targeting energy, shipping, shipbuilding, auto, mining and other strategic industrial sectors in Iran.
"All I'm saying is let us put in prospective sanctions that don't get imposed until July, which is well after the period of time that the president has said that there will either be an agreement or not," said Menendez.
If there is no agreement, the bill would trigger immediate sanctions unless the president opts for a 30-day waiver because negotiators are "on the verge of an agreement," Menendez said Friday. "I'm giving him until July. If there is no deal in July it would have been well over two years since this began. The Iranians are masters of delay."
The last Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, which was never voted on by the full Senate, would have compelled an increase in sanctions unless Iran ended all uranium enrichment activities — something Tehran says is a non-starter. That is no longer a binding condition in the bill, said aides who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the bill while it was still being worked on and demanded anonymity.
Kirk and Menendez are working hard to muster the 67 votes they would need in the Senate to override Obama's veto. A vote could occur as early as next month.