Key Senate panel puts Iran sanctions on hold

The chairman of a key Senate panel sided with the Obama administration on Thursday, agreeing to postpone new sanctions on Iran indefinitely.

The announcement by Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) gives the administration crucial breathing room to strike a comprehensive deal on Iran's nuclear program over the next six months. The White House argues that passing new sanctions — even if they would only be triggered by Iran reneging on its commitments or refusing a final deal — could derail diplomatic talks.

“I agree that the administration's request for a diplomatic pause is reasonable,” Johnson said Thursday at a hearing with Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who helped negotiate the initial, temporary agreement in Geneva last month. “We should not do anything counterproductive that might shatter Western unity on this issue. We should make sure that if the talks fail, it was Iran that caused their failure."

Johnson said he was working with the top Republican on the committee, Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho), on a bipartisan bill that “could be finalized and moved quickly if Iran fails to comply with the terms of the first step agreement in Geneva, or if negotiations collapse.”

Crapo agreed on the need for a bill that could be quickly teed up, but he stopped short of calling for its passage.

“The United States must continue to vigorously enforce the existing core sanctions architecture and develop a sanctions plan of action in the event that negotiations do not produce the result diplomats want,” Crapo said. “Should diplomacy fail in its mission to effectively control the apparent extent of the Iranian nuclear program, whether six months or a year down the road, there simply is no time available to waste then on crafting bills or executive orders.

“The U.S. must maintain existing multilateral sanctions pressure, and Congress and the administration each need to prepare now for the possibility that an effective, final comprehensive agreement may not be reached.”

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