Iran Nuclear Deal Halts Congress’s March to Sanctions

Iran Nuclear Deal Halts Congress’s March to Sanctions

A mounting bipartisan effort to impose additional sanctions on Iran was sent into disarray on Monday following the weekend’s announcement of a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Although some hawks in Congress want to charge ahead with additional sanctions against Tehran, that effort has taken a backseat to legislation that will let the Geneva deal play out — an important victory for the White House.

Much was made of the bipartisan outrage Sunday over the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) called the deal "disappointing," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said it gave too much away and Republicans called it a "blow to our allies." Media reports warned that the lawmakers may propose a new round of deal-killing sanctions. But if you listen to what the Iran hawks are now proposing, it’s exactly what the White House wants: a hold on additional sanctions with the promise of new sanctions if the deal falls apart.

"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," Menendez said in a statement Sunday.

Democratic whip Rep. Steny Hoyer described similar legislation in an interview on Face the Nation.  "I think it is appropriate that we wait six months to implement those, which will say to the Iranians, we need a final deal, and if not a final deal, these tougher sanctions are going to go in place," he said.

Republican Senator Mark Kirk, one of Congress’s most vocal Iran hawks, also suggested that Iran be given the chance to comply with the deal before further sanctions are enacted.

Almost any interpretation of President Obama’s remarks on Saturday night conveys the exact same position. "If Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure," Obama said with regards to sanctions.

The reason the White House took so much friendly fire on its Geneva deal is not a mystery. A number of top Democrats have taken heat from pro-Israel constituents during the last several weeks of P5+1 negotiations. That lobbying effort culminated in a flurry of press releases and Sunday talk show appearances in which Democrats blasted the administration’s deal. But as much pressure as Democrats are under, they’re not willing to sabotage the Obama administration’s painstaking, year-long diplomatic efforts at striking a deal with Iran. 

In an interview on CNN, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) acknowledged the impossible politics of voting for additional sanctions in open defiance of the White House. "I think [this deal] makes it very difficult to continue the sanctions," he said. "I have been in favor obviously … Congress really believes that sanctions should happen. I think it’s difficult for the Senate to do sanctions now."

Some lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Steve Israel, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy believe new sanctions should be passed despite the deal. However, such an effort would require the support of Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid and most likely Sen. Tim Johnson, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. And since the deal was finalized on Saturday night, Reid’s attitude has shifted from advocating immediate sanctions to "considering" new sanction following a round of hearings. Meanwhile, a Johnson spokesman tells The Cable that he will first consult with the Obama administration before considering further sanctions.

"Chairman Johnson has always supported a diplomatic solution that would set Iran on a path to fully and verifiably abandon its illicit nuclear activities. So he is encouraged by President Obama’s announcement on Saturday regarding the interim agreement in Geneva," Johnson spokesman Sean Oblack said. "He wants to be fully briefed by Secretary Kerry on the details of the agreement and its implementation, and to consult with colleagues, before making decisions about any committee action on new Iran-related legislation."

Given the administration’s insistence that any new sanctions now would implode the Geneva deal, Johnson is not likely to walk out of those briefings in support of such action.

Meanwhile, all the doom and gloom in Congress has mystified nuclear non-proliferation advocates who see the agreement as an historic opportunity to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.

"I don’t get these guys in Congress," Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, told The Cable. "In the word’s of Joe Biden, this is a big fucking deal. It’s not too often you can watch the hinge of history move. Every president since Jimmy Carter has tried to get a deal with Iran. This is the first president to actually do it."

Cirincione caught the news of a deal during a meeting at the Halifax International Security Forum, a gathering of hundreds of policy wonks, administration officials, lawmakers and journalists in Canada. The conference attracted foreign-policy minds across the political spectrum, but as news trickled out of Geneva, left-leaning security experts erupted in celebration.

"It’s only the first step, there’s a lot of hard work to do, but it is huge," said Cirincione

Heather Hurlbert, a former State Department and White House official and senior advisor at the National Security Network, applauded after watching the president’s Saturday night address on a hotel flat screen TV.

"You’ve got to credit the president on this," she told The Cable.  "I recently went back and was looking at his campaign speeches, and he did what he said he was going to do. And that’s not something people get a lot of credit for in our politics right now."

Hurlbert doubted that Reid would cross the administration on this issue. "I feel quite confident that Harry Reid is not going to blow up his president’s deal," she said. "Which has nothing to do with what Harry Reid might or might not say publicly."

Some right-leaning experts expressed skepticism over the deal. "As much as we all hope we can stop Iran’s progress toward WMD peacefully, I think we have to worry that what we are doing is freezing some capacity while other development goes on," said the McCain Institute’s Kurt Volker.