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Can Congress compromise on bipartisan Iran sanctions law?

Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders say they're getting closer to an agreement on non-nuclear sanctions.
Iranian-made Emad missile is displayed during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, in Tehran February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY.   - RTX26GRZ

Key senators say they're getting closer to unveiling bipartisan Iran sanctions legislation in the wake of repeated ballistic missile launches. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., indicated March 6 that the panel was getting closer to an agreement after months of internal negotiations with Democrats, including ranking member Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., both of whom voted against the deal. Democrats, however, made clear that the price of their support will be a tacit acknowledgment that President Barack Obama's nuclear pact should be given a chance to work. 

Whatever the committee comes up with, Cardin told Al-Monitor, "It can't be a credible argument that it violates the Iran nuclear deal."

He said, "We want to make sure that it doesn't violate the Iran nuclear agreement and we're trying to tailor it to Iran's current nefarious actions. So we're working on something. We're not quite there yet."

Corker suggested that a compromise was at hand in a statement after Iran test-fired two more missiles over the weekend. This would be the first congressional action on Iran since the renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act in December.

"These provocative tests are just the latest example of Iran’s dangerous actions that demand a coordinated, multifaceted response from the United States,” Corker wrote. “The administration has already begun to push back in the way that we should, and I look forward to working with them as we prepare to introduce bipartisan legislation to deter Iran’s threatening behavior on all fronts.”

Corker declined to comment further March 7. 

The chairman of the committee's Middle East panel, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said the weekend's missile tests provide an extra impetus for Congress to act.

"We've been discussing Iran for a long time," Risch said. "Anything they do that violates a UN resolution probably increases the likelihood of action by this body."

Asked if the committee was getting closer to releasing legislation, Menendez said he believed so. 

"Some of the areas are pretty well determined — destabilization of the region, terrorism, continuous deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles, those are some of the ones where I think we can see some common ground," he told Al-Monitor. "Iran needs to know that notwithstanding the nuclear agreement, that their violations of international order rules … have consequences." 

Menendez signed on to legislation with Corker last summer that would have imposed mandatory sanctions on entities involved in the missile program, but the bill didn't get much traction when Cardin declined to get on board. At the time, Cardin sought to add provisions seeking stepped-up enforcement of the nuclear deal, an effort that he called an "area of contention" that was rebuffed by Republicans.

This year may well prove more productive. Last month, Corker and Cardin joined forces on a bipartisan letter signed by 20 senators urging President Donald Trump to sanction Iran over its missile launches.

"Iranian leaders must feel sufficient pressure to cease deeply destabilizing activities, from sponsoring terrorist groups to continued testing of ballistic missiles," they wrote. "Full enforcement of existing sanctions and the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program are necessary."

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