Congress capitulates on Iran sanctions

President Obama has won an across-the-board victory in his fight to stop new sanctions on Iran.

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The Senate Banking Committee on Thursday announced a “pause” in its legislative push while the State Department pursues a comprehensive nuclear deal. And the House called off a vote this year on a non-binding resolution calling for new sanctions after the No. 2 Democrat fell in line with the White House.

“I realize that we're sort of going through a rope-a-dope here in the Senate and that we're not actually going to do anything,” the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), said at a hearing with Obama's top Iran negotiator.

“I understand that that's sort of baked in, the blockage, and I know we're participating in a little bit of a rope-a-dope today.”

Corker made the comments after Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) declared at a hearing with Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman that he would hold off on new sanctions legislation.

The administration has warned lawmakers repeatedly that passing new sanctions — even ones that would only be triggered if Iran reneges on its commitments or fails to agree to a final deal in six months — would violate the terms of last month's interim deal and could derail nuclear talks.

“If no final deal is reached or Iran fails to comply with the first step agreement, this committee will act swiftly to impose a new round of sanctions,” Johnson said after hearing from Sherman and the Treasury Department's top sanctions official, David Cohen.

“In the meantime, I agree with today's witnesses that a pause on new sanctions legislation is justified to see if such a deal is possible.”

The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), declined to criticize Johnson’s decision.

“At this point I'm still inclined to think that the committee should take action but I'm … holding back on that a little bit just simply because of the administration's request,” he told reporters after the hearing. “The administration has asked that we hold off, and although I'm not sure that is the correct step to take, the chairman has agreed and at this point that's where we are.”

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) postponed action on a sanctions resolution until after Congress returns next year.

Cantor had worked out an Iran resolution with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the top Republican and Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs panel — Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) — but Hoyer urged a delay on Thursday as U.S. and Iranian negotiators meet in Vienna this week to determine how to implement last month's agreement.

“Mr. Hoyer believes Congress has the right to express its views on what should be included in a final agreement, but that the timing was not right to move forward this week,” Hoyer spokeswoman Stephanie Young said in an email. “Mr. Hoyer decided now was not the time to move forward with a resolution given implementation talks have not yet wrapped in Vienna.”

Sanctions advocates said they aren't throwing in the towel.

“We should not lose sight of positive developments today,” a source at a pro-Israel organization told The Hill. “First, Congressmen Cantor and Hoyer agreed to language on a strong House resolution about a final Iran deal. Also, the administration today announced the implementation of significant new Iran sanctions. And finally, Senate action on sanctions remains in play for early next year.”

The House resolution would express the sense of Congress that the United States should adopt new sanctions that would be triggered if Iran reneges on its commitments or fails to strike a final deal.

It would also state that U.S. policy should demand that a final deal require the “dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities, such that Iran is prevented from pursuing both the uranium and plutonium pathways to a nuclear weapon.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a leading hawk on Iran, said Thursday that a similar resolution might be the way to go in the Senate. He did not rule out a separate sanctions bill, however.

“I have been a proponent of pursuing additional sanctions prospectively ... but I'm beginning to think based upon on all of this that maybe what the Senate needs to do is to define the end game, or at least what it finds as acceptable as the final status,” Menendez said. “Because I'm getting nervous about what I perceive will be acceptable to [the administration] as a final status ... versus what the Congress might view as acceptable.”

“Maybe defining that through a resolution may be a course of action that would affect the ultimate outcome, which is obviously the most important one.”

The new focus on the final deal suggests Obama's victory could be short-lived.

Secretary of State John Kerry declared at a House hearing on Tuesday that a final deal likely will allow Iran some ability to enrich uranium on its own soil, a non-starter for many members of both parties.

“That deal was on the table a hundred years ago,” Kerry said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, “But that deal, I'm afraid, has ... been lost.”

“At the end of this, I can't tell you they might not have some enrichment, but I can tell you with certainty it will not be possible for them to be able to turn that into a weapons program without our knowing it ... far in advance,” he said.