By Julian Pecquet and Jeremy Herb - 11/25/13 08:22 PM EST
Worried lawmakers are trying to set tough conditions for a final deal with Iran, fearful that President Obama’s interim agreement exposes the U.S. and Israel to danger.
But key Democrats and Republicans have decided not to fight the deal reached over the weekend, despite lambasting it as a giveaway to the mullahs in Tehran.
Instead, they’re readying a bipartisan bill that would redouble sanctions if Iran is not dismantling its nuclear program six months from now.
Members of Congress want to avoid undermining the White House’s diplomacy but are determined not to let Iran, one of the world’s biggest state sponsors of terrorism, retain the ability to build nuclear weapons.
“We need to have some sort of insurance policy that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is being dismantled after six months,” said a senior Republican Senate aide. “Otherwise, the sanctions come back in spades.”
Lawmakers hope to preserve bipartisan support for past sanctions bills while taking into account that most Americans, not to mention the rest of the world, want a deal. Israel is largely alone in denouncing this weekend’s agreement.
The imminent bill would focus on getting Iran to dismantle its nuclear program, which the current six-month deal does not do, to the dismay of critics.
Critics say Obama’s deal freezes Iran’s nuclear program where it is but weakens international sanctions, allowing a measure of economic recovery in which to restart an illegal nuclear weapons program later.
Under the agreement, Iran must stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent and dilute or convert its stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium, which is relatively easy to further enrich to weapons-grade material. But Tehran will be allowed to keep enriching uranium at lower levels, which critics warn still give the virulently anti-American and anti-Israeli theocracy the ability to build nukes.
“You don’t need 20 percent enriched uranium anymore in Iran to make a weapon,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on CNN Monday. “You can do it with 3.5 percent. So, this deal is so far away from the end game.”
The deal does not meet previous United Nations Security Council resolutions, which call for halting of all of Iran’s enrichment.
Critics also complain that Iran is allowed to keep its thousands of centrifuges running (while not producing any new ones) and is required only to halt construction on its heavy-water facility in Arak, rather than dismantle it.
The sanctions effort is led by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who co-authored Iran sanctions legislation that sailed through the Senate 100-0 two years ago.
They have introduced amendments to the Defense authorization bill that call for new sanctions if Iran fails to meet its obligations under the interim deal, while spelling out conditions Iran must meet for long-term relief.
Under Menendez’s amendment, sanctions could be suspended to “facilitate a diplomatic solution” if the Obama administration is “working toward a final agreement or arrangement that will dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in a manner that will ensure that Iran is incapable of obtaining a nuclear weapons capability and that permits daily verification, monitoring, and inspections of suspect facilities in Iran.”
“I expect that the forthcoming sanctions legislation to be considered by the Senate will provide for a six-month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran, but will at the same time be immediately available should the talks falter or Iran fail to implement or breach the interim agreement,” Menendez said in a statement Sunday after the deal was reached.
Despite broad bipartisan support for more sanctions, the bill’s chances in the Senate are uncertain. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Monday backed away from his promise last week to bring legislation to the floor next month. And Secretary of State John Kerry warned over the weekend that Obama could veto sanctions legislation if he thought it undermined diplomacy.
White House officials hedged Monday when asked if Obama would veto a new sanctions bill, and urged Congress to wait six months.
“We’re not there yet because there’s not a bill that’s been passed,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on MSNBC.
“I have no doubt that Congress could pass these sanctions very quickly, so we don’t see the need to do it now during the length of this agreement, because, frankly, that could cause divisions within our P5+1 coalition,” Rhodes said. “It could complicate this diplomacy.”
The interim deal was signed off by Iran and the P5+1 group —the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. It gives Iran as much as $7 billion in sanctions relief.
Senate aides say the next steps in the Senate are not determined yet. Senators want to pass tough sanctions legislation after the House did so in July by a 400-20 vote.
Senate aides say they are considering legislating via the Senate Banking Committee, or bringing a standalone measure straight to the floor, bypassing committees.
Another option Republicans pushed for last week was a sanctions measure as an amendment to the must-pass Defense authorization bill. But that route seemed unlikely because the Defense bill faces a time crunch when the Senate returns Dec. 9, aides say.
“We gave them space, a deal was achieved, and now let’s project six months forward and offer up a package should this fail,” said one Senate aide.