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State Department won’t say if it likes Iran sanctions law

The Obama administration came out publicly and privately against the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions amendment before it was tweaked by a conference committee. But does it support the new sanctions language now that it has emerged from conference? That remains a secret. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland’s refusal to comment on the Iran sanctions language within ...

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The Obama administration came out publicly and privately against the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions amendment before it was tweaked by a conference committee. But does it support the new sanctions language now that it has emerged from conference? That remains a secret.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland’s refusal to comment on the Iran sanctions language within the defense authorization bill, which will go to President Barack Obama’s desk this week for signature, baffled members of the media at Wednesday’s press briefing. After all, senior administration officials have been commenting about the sanctions language for weeks as part of their effort to influence the congressional negotiations.

The administration worked hard to influence leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, who met behind closed doors to make changes to the Menendez-Kirk amendment. The administration wanted more flexibility in implementing the sanctions, which are targeted at the Central Bank of Iran and any other foreign bank that does business with it.

"You’ve had 24 hours to look at it, so I’m wondering what you think. Does this meet your concerns? Is it okay?" AP reporter and rabble rouser Matt Lee asked Nuland at the top of today’s presser.

"The bill is not law yet, so if and when it does become law, then we’re going to have to look very carefully," Nuland said. "And I can’t, frankly, at this point, speculate on what kinds of procedures and applications might be called for in this case. So frankly, I’m going to disappoint you; I don’t have much more than we had yesterday on this, Matt."

Lee, who always gets the first question at the briefings and has been sparring with Nuland a lot lately, refused to take no for an answer. He pointed out that the administration has been commenting on the issue all along and often comments on legislation before it becomes law.

"So you’re not going to say anything about it until after it’s too late?" said Lee.

"Again, I think we’ve been clear about this," Nuland said. "We’ve been working with the Congress on it, but I’m not going to…"

Lee cut her off.

"No, in fact, you haven’t been clear about it, and I think that the other one-third of the government, which is the Congress, would like — as well as the rest of us — would like to know what the administration thinks about it, especially given the fact that this president came in promising unprecedented transparency," he said.

After several more rounds of an uncomfortable back and forth, Nuland refused to budge and indicate one way or the other whether the administration supports the Iran sanctions language or not.

She did not give any indication that the president would veto the defense bill, which is sure to pass the Senate Thursday, over the new Iran sanctions language. If he did so, Obama would be bucking the will of all 100 senators, who all voted for the Menendez-Kirk amendment.

In essence, Lee was pressing Nuland to admit that the administration is being bullied into accepting Iran sanctions law it doesn’t want. Nuland was not about to admit that.

"I’m sorry that’s disappointing today," Nuland said.

"No, it’s not disappointing," said Lee. "I think it’s irresponsible."

"You are welcome to that opinion," Nuland responded.

The Obama administration came out publicly and privately against the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions amendment before it was tweaked by a conference committee. But does it support the new sanctions language now that it has emerged from conference? That remains a secret.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland’s refusal to comment on the Iran sanctions language within the defense authorization bill, which will go to President Barack Obama’s desk this week for signature, baffled members of the media at Wednesday’s press briefing. After all, senior administration officials have been commenting about the sanctions language for weeks as part of their effort to influence the congressional negotiations.

The administration worked hard to influence leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, who met behind closed doors to make changes to the Menendez-Kirk amendment. The administration wanted more flexibility in implementing the sanctions, which are targeted at the Central Bank of Iran and any other foreign bank that does business with it.

"You’ve had 24 hours to look at it, so I’m wondering what you think. Does this meet your concerns? Is it okay?" AP reporter and rabble rouser Matt Lee asked Nuland at the top of today’s presser.

"The bill is not law yet, so if and when it does become law, then we’re going to have to look very carefully," Nuland said. "And I can’t, frankly, at this point, speculate on what kinds of procedures and applications might be called for in this case. So frankly, I’m going to disappoint you; I don’t have much more than we had yesterday on this, Matt."

Lee, who always gets the first question at the briefings and has been sparring with Nuland a lot lately, refused to take no for an answer. He pointed out that the administration has been commenting on the issue all along and often comments on legislation before it becomes law.

"So you’re not going to say anything about it until after it’s too late?" said Lee.

"Again, I think we’ve been clear about this," Nuland said. "We’ve been working with the Congress on it, but I’m not going to…"

Lee cut her off.

"No, in fact, you haven’t been clear about it, and I think that the other one-third of the government, which is the Congress, would like — as well as the rest of us — would like to know what the administration thinks about it, especially given the fact that this president came in promising unprecedented transparency," he said.

After several more rounds of an uncomfortable back and forth, Nuland refused to budge and indicate one way or the other whether the administration supports the Iran sanctions language or not.

She did not give any indication that the president would veto the defense bill, which is sure to pass the Senate Thursday, over the new Iran sanctions language. If he did so, Obama would be bucking the will of all 100 senators, who all voted for the Menendez-Kirk amendment.

In essence, Lee was pressing Nuland to admit that the administration is being bullied into accepting Iran sanctions law it doesn’t want. Nuland was not about to admit that.

"I’m sorry that’s disappointing today," Nuland said.

"No, it’s not disappointing," said Lee. "I think it’s irresponsible."

"You are welcome to that opinion," Nuland responded.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin