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Senators, defying White House, push a new Iran sanctions bill

The bipartisan group of senators say their threat of harsher sanctions will lead Iran to negotiate in good faith to reach a final deal with the international community on the scope of its nuclear program. White House sees the bill as ill-timed.

A bipartisan group of senators on Thursday introduced legislation, in defiance of the White House, that would hit Iran with new sanctions if it violates the terms of an interim deal reached last month on its nuclear program.

The bill, proposed by Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Charles Schumer of New York, and Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois, would also impose tough new measures on Iran if it fails to reach a final agreement with the United States and other world powers that verifiably ends all of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities.

Iran has repeatedly insisted that it will never give up all enrichment, and an interim deal that six world powers reached with Iran last month in Geneva includes language strongly implying that Iran could be allowed to retain low-level uranium enrichment capabilities.

The legislation would allow for more than a year of negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, but it would also impose a strict timetable on President Obama for regularly certifying that Iran is not violating the interim agreement and is negotiating in good faith on a final deal. The White House has warned that imposing new sanctions on Iran now would be tantamount to a “march to war.” 

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The legislation, which already has the support of more than one-quarter of US senators, is not likely to come to a vote until after the Senate’s return from recess on Jan. 6. But already the bill is pitting its supporters, who insist more pressure is needed to keep Iran at the negotiating table, against critics who say new sanctions will doom talks. By setting Iran free to pursue further nuclear progress, they add, such a US move could make a costly new military intervention in theMiddle East more likely.

“Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table,” said Senator Menendez in a statement announcing the legislation.

But the bill’s opponents insist that the legislation violates the interim accord with Iran that the US just signed on to – the agreement pledges that no new sanctions will be imposed on Iran while talks go on. Moreover, it is a boon to hardliners on both sides of the debate who want no deal with Iran, they say.

“There is no better way to undercut American diplomats and Iranian moderates that to introduce a bill that violates the terms of the [Geneva] nuclear agreement, sets prohibitive preconditions for any final deal, and pledges to support Israeli military strikes,” says Jamal Abdi, policy director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington. “This bill is a vote for war over diplomacy.”

The Obama administration has been pressing the Senate to hold off on any new sanctions since the House overwhelmingly passed a new sanctions bill in the summer. The full-court press, including appearances by Secretary of State John Kerry before key Senate committees, intensified in recent weeks once the interim deal with Iran seemed imminent.

Last month, the White House equated new sanctions to a death knell for diplomacy with Iran. “It is important to understand that if pursuing a resolution diplomatically is disallowed or ruled out, what options, then, do we and our allies have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. “The American people do not want a march to war.”

The administration last week tried to head off the Senate sanctions juggernaut by naming new Iranian companies and individuals under existing sanctions – essentially saying, “We aren’t letting up the pressure on Iran, so you don’t need to mess things up by passing new sanctions.”

Evidently, the Senate was unimpressed, though the administration’s measures were enough to infuriate Iran and prompt it to temporarily boycott experts-level talks on the way forward in negotiations on a permanent nuclear agreement.

Success in those negotiations was always considered a long shot by some nuclear proliferation experts who think it will be difficult to reconcile Iran’s nuclear demands with the bottom-line requirements of the international community. But new US sanctions just as talks on a final deal really get going seem likely to make a long shot that much less reachable.