Tough audience on sanctions delay for Iran

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Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday urged increasingly skittish senators to postpone new sanctions on Iran.

But President Obama’s envoys found an even tougher audience than they faced when making a similar appeal just two weeks ago.

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“What we’re asking everybody to do is calm down, look hard at what can be achieved and what the realities are,” Kerry told reporters before heading into a meeting with members of the Senate Banking Committee, which is weighing new sanctions on the Iranian energy sector. “If sanctions were to be increased, there are members of [the international] coalition who have put [sanctions] in place who would think we’re dealing in bad faith, and they would bolt.”

Kerry made the comments as lawmakers in both parties are balking at the administration’s offer during recent talks in Geneva to loosen sanctions on Iran.

Critics say the deal would have given Iran more than the international community stood to receive in return.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the chamber’s Banking panel, said he was “very disappointed” with the closed-door briefing he received from Kerry on Wednesday.

“It was solely an emotional appeal,” Corker said, adding that “generally speaking” Kerry and others told lawmakers to trust them.

“I am stunned that in a classified setting, when you are trying to talk to the very folks that would be originating legislation relative to sanctions, there would be such a lack of specificity,” said Corker. 

The Tennessee senator has threatened to introduce legislation that would make it harder for the administration to loosen sanctions on Iran, which could hamper its ability to negotiate.

Democrats were tight-lipped after leaving a separate briefing with Kerry and Biden. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined to answer questions.

“I’m undecided,” Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said about moving the sanctions bill.

The Banking panel was briefed by Kerry and Undersecretary of State for political affairs Wendy Sherman, the lead negotiator with Iran.

Biden separately talked to Democrats on the panel and in leadership, who will be making the decision on whether to move any legislation.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), the co-author of sanctions legislation that cleared the Senate unanimously two years ago, said the administration has “very low credibility” with lawmakers.

Kirk vowed to use “every method I have as a senator” to move new legislation imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, perhaps as an amendment to defense legislation expected on the floor next week.

He said Israeli sources told him the interim deal on the table last week, which Iran ended up rejecting, would only have delayed its nuclear program by 24 days in exchange for about $20 billion in sanctions relief.

Kirk also expressed outrage that administration officials had dismissed Israeli estimates about the limited impact on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Today is the day in which I witnessed the future of nuclear war in the Middle East,” he said. “The best way to prevent that from happening is to continue sanctions.”

He predicted 90 percent of senators would vote for new sanctions if given the chance.

The administration is also taking a drubbing in the House, which voted 400-20 back in July for sanctions similar to the ones now under consideration in the Senate. 

The chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs panel are considering ways to put pressure on the administration to tighten their demands on Iran, The Hill has learned. 

“Our next step will probably be a resolution in the House, which will express the necessity of going into these negotiations with a stronger bargaining position,” said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.). “And that bargaining position would include additional sanctions.” 

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) suggested the effort could take the form of a lower-impact letter to the administration, however.

“We don’t feel that we should just sit quietly because we’ve done our work” by passing the sanctions bill over the summer, Engel said. “We think that we need to comment on what we think the next step should be, both in terms of what the Senate should do and what negotiations should do.”

Separately, four House members — Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) — are circulating a letter urging Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to bring up sanctions legislation.

“We urge you and your colleagues in the Senate to act swiftly to continue consideration of rigorous Iran sanctions legislation,” they write. 

“The possibility of tighter sanctions will enhance our leverage in the nuclear standoff between the Iran’s Supreme Leader and the international community.”

Members of both parties delivered the same message earlier in the day during a House hearing on Iran.

“With diplomatic talks resuming in seven days,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (Fla.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East, “I urge our Senate colleagues to continue to advance on sanctions legislation, because the crushing economic sanctions are forcing the Iranians to the negotiating table.”

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