Obama to Congress: Back down on Iran

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President Obama is sending two of his top diplomats to Capitol Hill next week in a final bid to stop new sanctions on Iran.

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Secretary of State John Kerry and his lead Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, will testify in public before House and Senate panels about the preliminary deal reached last month in Geneva.

Their goal: convince skeptical lawmakers that levying new punishments on Iran could derail the sensitive nuclear negotiations.

“Passing any new sanctions right now will undermine our efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution to this issue by giving the Iranians an excuse to push the terms of the agreement on their side,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said this week.

A senior Republican Senate aide portrayed the administration’s message differently.

“They want the opportunity to go on national news and say over and over ... 'we're on our way to peace in our time, and if you take some kind of action, you're going to screw it all up,’ ” the aide said.

On the flip side, the GOP aide said, sanctions proponents will get to press the administration to explain how the talks would be put at risk by the sanctions, given that they would only be triggered if Iran reneges on its commitments.

Sanctions advocates say a trigger would bolster the administration's negotiating position by ensuring that the international sanctions regime, which took years to build, won’t collapse if the nuclear negotiations stall.

“From my perspective, it strengthens the administration’s hand,” Senate Foreign Relations panel Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told The Washington Post. “It would make clear to the Iranians if they don’t strike a deal, this is what’s coming.”

Republicans and a handful of Democrats in the Senate remain committed to trying to pass new sanctions before the end of the year. They've been trying to build bipartisan support for an amendment to a must-pass Defense bill that the House would have to accept and pass by the end of next week.

“Our goal still remains getting something into law by the end of the year,” the GOP aide said. If Congress fails to act by then, the White House “dodges a huge bullet” because it would be a “lot more difficult” to find a convenient legislative vehicle.

The sanctions bill is a priority for pro-Israel groups.

“We are continuing to support efforts by senators to move legislation that would contain additional sanctions that would be implemented should Iran violate the agreement or fail to agree to an acceptable final deal,” said an official with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

The White House’s stance against sanctions has the support of at least one of the six nations negotiating with Iran.

“The time for additional measures will come if Iran reneges on the deal or if negotiations fail,” British Ambassador to the U.S. Peter Westmacott wrote in an op-ed for The Hill last month. “Now is not that time.”

Kerry will brief the House Foreign Affairs panel on Tuesday, with Sherman and Treasury sanctions official David Cohen following suit on Thursday in front of the Senate Banking Committee.

They will face deep bipartisan skepticism about the initial Iran deal, which temporarily freezes Iran's nuclear program — but doesn't end all uranium enrichment — in exchange for a loosening of sanctions.

“I continue to have serious concerns that the agreement the Obama administration negotiated does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said in announcing the hearing.

“This hearing will be an opportunity for Committee Members of both parties to press Secretary Kerry to explain why the Obama Administration believes this sanctions-easing agreement is the right course.”