Congress fires warning shot at Iran

More than two-thirds of the Senate and nearly 400 House members on Tuesday promised to pursue "dramatic sanctions" against Iran if it continues its nuclear program.

In a letter sent to President Obama, 83 senators — well above the two-thirds required to override a presidential veto — warned there would be serious consequences for Iran if it fails to reach a nuclear agreement with the United States.

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“We must signal unequivocally to Iran that rejecting negotiations and continuing its nuclear weapon program will lead to much more dramatic sanctions, including further limitations on Iran’s exports of crude oil and petroleum products,” the letter says.

Several hours later, a letter to Obama signed by 394 House members was released that said Congress was ready to "act swiftly to consider additional sanctions and steps necessary to change Iran's calculation" if negotiations falter or Iran violates the interim nuclear deal reached last year.

The unified push from both chambers of Congress came as world powers, including the United States, gathered in Vienna, Austria, to try and hammer out the details of a final agreement with Iran.

An interim six-month deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities took effect in January, and was intended to buy time for more negotiations.

The senators said any final agreement should state that Iran has no inherent right to nuclear enrichment while requiring the country to dismantle its nuclear program, give up its heavy water reactor and submit to a long-term system of inspections, among other principles.

“We believe that Iran has no inherent right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,” the first principle said.

A requirement of zero enrichment, however, was not included in the Senate letter. Obama administration officials have acknowledged that Iran would be unlikely to agree to that standard, because some enrichment is required for nuclear power.

The letter was spearheaded by Sens. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSchumer: Obama 'very amenable' to helping Senate Dems in midterms The Hill's Morning Report: Can Trump close the deal with North Korea? Senate must save itself by confirming Mike Pompeo MORE (D-N.J.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate panel advances three spending bills Trump says he will sign executive order to end family separations Trump backs narrow bill halting family separations: official MORE (R-S.C.), Mark KirkMark Steven KirkThis week: Trump heads to Capitol Hill Trump attending Senate GOP lunch Tuesday High stakes as Trump heads to Hill MORE (R-Ill.), Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate moderates hunt for compromise on family separation bill All the times Horowitz contradicted Wray — but nobody seemed to notice Hillicon Valley: Trump hits China with massive tech tariffs | Facebook meets with GOP leaders over bias allegations | Judge sends Manafort to jail ahead of trial | AT&T completes Time Warner purchase MORE (D-Del.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteErnst, Fischer to square off for leadership post The Hill's Morning Report: Koch Network re-evaluating midterm strategy amid frustrations with GOP Audit finds US Defense Department wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars MORE (R-N.H.).

Menendez is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He and Kirk authored legislation last year that would impose tougher sanctions against Iran.

Of the 17 senators who did not sign Tuesday’s letter, eight were Democratic committee chairmen who wrote to Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidAmendments fuel resentments within Senate GOP Donald Trump is delivering on his promises and voters are noticing Danny Tarkanian wins Nevada GOP congressional primary MORE (D-Nev.) in December urging him to hold off a vote on new Iran sanctions.

Reid, who stood by the White House in opting not to allow a vote on the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill, also did not sign Tuesday’s letter to Obama.

Other notable names missing from Tuesday’s letter were Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinHow House Republicans scrambled the Russia probe Congress dangerously wields its oversight power in Russia probe The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate MORE (Mich.), Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGrassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report Senate Gang of Four to meet next week on immigration Live coverage: High drama as hardline immigration bill fails, compromise vote delayed MORE (Calif.) and Banking Committee Chairman Tim JohnsonTimothy (Tim) Peter JohnsonSenate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Court ruling could be game changer for Dems in Nevada Bank lobbyists counting down to Shelby’s exit MORE (S.D.).

Calls for bringing an Iran bill to the floor have died down, with lawmakers abiding by the White House's request for time.

“For diplomacy to succeed, however, we must couple our willingness to negotiate with a united and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime,” the senators warned in the letter.

The House letter was led by Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate Race for Republican Speaker rare chance to unify party for election Scalise allies upset over Ryan blindside on McCarthy endorsement MORE (R-Va.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). The House letter also laid out conditions for the final deal similar to those outlined by the upper chamber.

If a final deal is reached by July, the lawmakers say Obama administration officials must work with Congress to enact legislation that would provide “longer term sanctions relief” in case Iran reneges on a final agreement’s terms.

“Should negotiations fail or Iran violate the Joint Plan of Action, Congress will need to ensure that the legislative authority exists to rapidly and dramatically expand sanctions,” the senators wrote. “We need to work together now to prepare for either eventuality.” 

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said this week he expects the current round of talks to be more complicated as diplomatic negotiators iron out details about Iran’s heavy-water reactor and levels of uranium enrichment, Reuters reported

Obama has said the probability of a final deal being reached is 50-50.

— Jeremy Herb contributed. 

This post was updated at 6:06 p.m.