Congress gives Obama two more months to strike Iran deal

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Article Summary
Hawkish Democrats announce they won’t vote for sanctions before March 24 deal deadline.

Ten hawkish Democratic senators vowed Jan. 27 to vote against Iran sanctions legislation if it comes up before the end of March, robbing Republicans of the votes they need to override a veto.

The announcement is a clear win for President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly warned lawmakers that targeting Iran now could blow up delicate diplomatic talks. The latest development all but assures that the Senate leadership will delay a vote rather than turn Iran into a partisan issue, with even top Republicans making that case.

“The last thing we need to do is pass a bill out of the U.S. Senate that is not veto proof,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., tweeted Jan. 27.

The lawmakers made the announcement in a letter to Obama spearheaded by Iran sanctions co-author Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and signed by most of the Democrats who supported such legislation in the past. The signers say they’re “deeply skeptical” Iran will reach a political framework agreement by March 24 as called for under the current talks, but agreed to abide by Obama’s “concern” that passing sanctions legislation now could doom talks and unravel international support for the current sanctions regime.

“We will not vote for this legislation on the Senate floor before March 24,” the lawmakers wrote. “After March 24, we will only vote for this legislation on the Senate floor if Iran fails to reach agreement on a political framework that addresses all parameters of a comprehensive agreement.”

The letter goes on to state that the deadline is the “critical test of Iranian intentions,” but stops short of unconditionally promising an automatic “yes” vote after that date.

The legislation currently under consideration would trigger sanctions on Iran if there’s no final deal with Iran by June 6. The Senate banking panel is still on track to vote on the bill on Jan. 29, with several Democrats, including Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., vowing to vote for it in committee but not on the floor.

"By introducing this legislation now, we're sending a clear message for Iran to stop playing games,” Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said at the Jan. 27 hearing. “However, while I strongly support this legislation, I also firmly believe we must give the P5+1 talks a chance to succeed. This effort is far too serious to become a political football, and the consequences are far too great.”

Administration witnesses at an Iran hearing Jan. 27 welcomed the news. There is no evidence, however, that the White House won’t pressure lawmakers to delay action again if there’s no political framework by the end of March.

“On the basis of what I've heard, I think it recognizes that our negotiators could use the time and space effectively of not having legislation passed before the end of March,” said the State Department’s No. 2 official, Antony Blinken. “I think the commitment to do that is something that we would see very favorably and would answer a big part of the problem that we would have with legislation, even trigger legislation, if it passed now."

In addition to Menendez, Schumer and Donnelly, the letter was signed by five Democrats who sponsored sanctions last year, while picking up Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters. Four past co-sponsors are missing: Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Col.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Mark Warner, D-Va.; and Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Separately, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., have sought to create an overture for more diplomacy by introducing a resolution that states there is widespread support for new sanctions if talks collapse. The resolution was signed by 11 Democrats and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.

And leaders of the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote to the heads of the House foreign affairs and Senate banking committees Jan. 27 urging them to “postpone enacting new sanctions legislation against Iran.”

“Enacting new sanctions legislation now undermines the efforts of the P5+1 and is contrary to a peaceful solution,” wrote Reps. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. and Barbara Lee, D-Calif. “Given the sensitive timing, Congressional action should reflect support for a negotiated settlement over the Iranian nuclear dispute rather than pushing legislation that could take us off the negotiating track and escalate towards war.” 

Found in: sanctions, robert menendez, nuclear talks, iran, congress, barack obama

Julian Pecquet is Al-Monitor's Washington Editor. He was previously Congressional Correspondent from 2014 through May 2017 and most recently before that headed up The Hill's Global Affairs blog. On Twitter: @JPecquet_ALM, Email: jpecquet@al-monitor.com.

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