Washington, DC – A battle is currently underway between the White House and hawks in Congress over whether to pursue a diplomatic agreement with Iran or go forward with new sanctions. A number of members in the House have sent letters to the White House and the Senate calling for swift passage of new sanctions, rejecting the Obama Administration’s push to delay a new round of Congressional sanctions that the White House says would derail diplomacy.
Representatives Michael McCaul (R-TX), Brad Sherman (D-CA), Peter Roskam (R-IL), and Grace Meng (D-NY) are organizing a letter calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to “act swiftly to continue consideration of rigorous Iran sanctions legislation” and warning, “Despite Hassan Rouhani’s attempt to portray Iran’s government in a new light, the objective of the Iranian regime remains the same: the pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”
Meanwhile, Reps. Mike Coffman (R-CO), Pete Sessions (R-TX), Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA), Jim Gerlach (R-PA), and Tom Cotton (R-AK) are planning a letter to Secretary John Kerry stating that “we should not relax a single sanction until the Iranian government terminates its program of nuclear enrichment beyond what would be needed for peaceful purposes…”
The White House, using its strongest language yet, has suggested a new round of Congressional sanctions would put the U.S. on a “march to war.” At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, that seemed to be exactly the point for many Members of Congress. A number of committee members openly celebrated France’s reported derailing of an agreement backed by the U.S. and agreed to by Iran in Geneva the previous weekend.
Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) ruled out any kind of interim or final diplomatic agreement in which Iran would be allowed to enrich and warned that any easing of sanctions would “deflate” pressure against Iran. “Fortunately, this deal wasn’t reached in Switzerland,” he said.
Representative Juan Vargas (D-CA) cheered, “Vive la France! Thank God for France!” and Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) welcomed the French intervention, saying “Who’d have thought the French would save us from making a bum deal?”
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) warned that an “interim deal is a bad idea” because it “eliminates the threat of regime survival.” He said sanctions are “one of the only few things that our federal government’s doing that works… that’s why we need to do more of it, not less.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said, “we’re making a fool out of ourselves” at the negotiations and suggested time would be better spent “supporting those elements in Iran that are opposed to the mullah regime.” He said Iran would “get the word if all of a sudden the Azeris, the Baluch, and the Kurds, and the other people within Iran started receiving support from the outside – that type of pressure perhaps they understand.”
There are few legislative options for the House to affect the process at this time, because the chamber already passed a sanctions bill in August–four days before Rouhani’s inauguration. However, Royce indicated that the House may look to pass a non-binding resolution calling for more sanctions and criticizing the diplomatic process.
The real concern of the White House is the Senate, which has yet to consider its own version of a sanctions bill and has held fire to give space for negotiations. But within the coming week, a bill to authorize defense spending and priorities for the next year will likely be introduced for debate on the Senate floor, and many believe this could be a vehicle for Senators who are angry with the sanctions pause to independently attach sanctions measures and scuttle talks. The annual defense bill has served as a favorite vehicle for sanctions hawks in the past to bypass the more cumbersome regular rules of the chamber and advance controversial sanctions measures.
The Obama administration has been deploying a number of top officials to warn Congress to block the new sanctions. After a briefing for Senate Banking Committee members on Wednesday with Secretary of State Kerry and lead U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman, Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) dismissed any negotiated effort with Iran, calling for more of the crippling sanctions that he has championed previously. In remarks condemned by NIAC, Kirk said, “How do you define an Iranian moderate? An Iranian who is out of bullets and out of money.”
Yet there have been indications that some in Congress are standing up for diplomacy and siding with negotiators. Head of the Armed Services Committee Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) has spoken out against new sanctions and said that if there’s a chance for a diplomatic resolution with Iran, “[w]hether it is a 10 percent, 40 percent, or 60 percent chance, it should be tested and probed.” He has said that he wants to keep his defense authorization bill free of sanctions amendments. Chris Murphy (D-CT) released a statement yesterday backing the Administration’s view that “it would be counterproductive for Congress to authorize a new round of sanctions” while diplomatic efforts are still at play.
Earlier this month, Secretary Kerry had made the case to Congress to hold off on sanctions until January, and he was able to convince some members to at least remain undecided on the vote, such as Republican Senator Dean Heller who said that Kerry made “a good case.” But whether the Administration can prevent Congress from passing sanctions long enough to secure a deal remains unclear. The next round of negotiations will be next Wednesday in Geneva.