Senators tee up Iran sanctions bill

A bipartisan group of senators is teeing up an Iran sanctions bill, defying the White House's repeated warnings that doing so could derail diplomatic talks on the country's nuclear program. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), authors of past sanctions legislation, are leading the charge, along with Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

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The bill, which is expected to be introduced Thursday, would let the administration waive new sanctions on Iran's energy sector as long as it certifies that Iran is meeting the terms of the interim deal reached last month in Geneva.

“I am working with a series of members, and I expect we’ll have some type of an announcement tomorrow,” Menendez told National Journal on Wednesday. “The dynamics are what I’ve always said they would be, which is to give the president the space and time so that he can test the Iranians’ seriousness of purpose in terms of whether they are willing to strike an agreement, but to be ready should they ultimately fail.”

The White House — and Iran — have warned repeatedly that passing such a bill would derail talks. The administration appeared to gain the upper hand last week after convincing Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), whose committee would normally take up such legislation, to hold off. 

“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 last week after hearing from President Obama's top Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy 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 new Menendez-Kirk bill would also require that any final deal with Iran end its ability to enrich uranium. Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested that such a requirement was a nonstarter for Iran.

“That deal was on the table a hundred years ago,” Kerry testified before the House Foreign Affairs panel last week. “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,” Kerry said, “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.” 

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