Obama pleads for time on Iran


President Obama on Tuesday pleaded with senators to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran, asking them to allow the administration more time to strike a diplomatic deal to curb the country’s nuclear program.

During a two-hour White House meeting, the president called on the senators to ignore Israel’s aggressive lobbying campaign for the imposition of new sanctions.  

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Obama “asked for a period of time” to negotiate, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations panel, told reporters after the meeting.

Corker said the administration made a strong case that a preliminary deal with Iran could be at hand, but some lawmakers worry it could offer Iran breathing room while failing to lead to a comprehensive deal on the program down the line.

“They are very explicit about what they think they may be able to achieve,” Corker said.

“There’s a concern that whatever you do in the interim basis is the new norm,” he added.

Corker strongly suggested the Senate would not pass new sanctions before Thanksgiving, giving the administration crucial breathing space.

Legislation that mirrors House-passed sanctions on Iran’s energy sector is stuck in the Democratic-controlled Banking Committee, and Senate leaders aren’t expected to allow it as an amendment to a pending defense bill. The sanctions passed the House 400-20 in July.

At a forum with business executives hosted by The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, Obama said he didn’t know whether the U.S. would be able to close a deal with Tehran in the coming weeks.

But the president said that he had told Israel and his critics in Congress that it was important to test whether a diplomatic solution was possible.

“Let’s test the proposition over the next six months [that] we can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion while maintaining the essential sanctions architecture,” Obama said.

The president said that under the proposed short-term deal, the Iranians would halt their nuclear weapons program, roll back certain elements and subject themselves to “vigorous inspections.”

Obama said, the U.S. was offering a “very modest amount of relief that is entirely subject to reinstatement if in fact [Iran] violated any part of this earlier agreement.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the president made a strong case for loosening sanctions.

“From what I heard previously I had some concerns about it, but I think this is a major step forward,” she told reporters after attending the White House briefing.

“I think it’s not insignificant that you have [the United States and its negotiating partners] on the same plane. That’s important, that hasn’t happened before.”

The negotiators from the United States, China, Russia, France, Great Britain and Germany will meet again Wednesday with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva.

Negotiators are considering a six-month deal that would require Iran to stop producing highly enriched uranium, which can easily be converted to weapons grade, and take other measures to freeze its nuclear program while agreeing to more inspections by international experts.

In exchange, Iran would get access to some of its revenue from oil and other exports that have been blocked around the world because of international sanctions.

The Obama administration seized on the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani earlier this year to try to reach a deal. Rouhani and Obama spoke on the telephone in September, the first conversation between the presidents of Iran and the U.S. since the Iranian hostage crisis decades ago.

Nuclear talks fell apart at the last minute earlier this month amid concerns from France that the requirements the deal would impose on Iran weren’t tough enough.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu has pressed the Senate to approve new sanctions on Iran, despite the negotiations, warning that the proposed deal would hurt its security and allow Iran to move closer to obtaining nuclear capability.

Lawmakers in both parties have been somewhat skeptical about the talks.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a chief proponent of additional sanctions, vowed to lead a renewed push after lawmakers return from Thanksgiving recess.

“I think we should push forward with new sanctions, with the understanding that if we can reach a deal that’s good for all of the parties — us and Israel and the rest of the world — then the sanctions could be waived or suspended,” he told The Hill on Tuesday.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama told the senators Iran will continue to make progress on its nuclear weapons program unless the U.S. offers the leadership in Tehran something as a first step.

The president said “sanctions should not be enacted during the current negotiations,” Carney said. He also assured them that “the relief that we are considering as part of a first step is limited, temporary and reversible.”

Critics of the proposed deal say Iran would get an infusion of billions of dollars and stave off a pending economic collapse in exchange for a deal that wouldn’t substantially set back its program and allow it to restart at Iran’s convenience.

They want Iran to suspend all uranium reprocessing and related enrichment activity, as well as to halt the construction of any facilities used for the processes.

“We feel strongly that any easing of sanctions along the lines that [the international community] is reportedly considering should require Iran to roll back its nuclear program more significantly than now envisioned,” Graham and Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.

The chairman and ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.),  respectively, made the same plea in a letter to Obama.

“Mr. President, the United States cannot allow Iran to continue to advance toward a nuclear weapons capability while at the same time providing relief from the sanctions pressure we worked so hard to build, and the Administration has worked to enforce.”
 
Jeremy Herb contributed.

This report was updated at 8 p.m.