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) MenendezCongress must provide flexible funding for owners of repeatedly flooded properties Senate ethics panel resumes Menendez probe after judge declares mistrial Judge declares mistrial in Menendez bribery case MORE (D-N.J.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House MORE (R-S.C.), Mark KirkMark KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE (R-Ill.), Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsA Department of Energy foundation: An idea whose time has come We must reconcile privacy and safety in the digital era Protecting intellectual property in America is harder than ever MORE (D-Del.) and Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteLessons from Alabama: GOP, throw out the old playbook The Hill's 12:30 Report Explaining Democratic victories: It’s gun violence, stupid 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 ReidDems search for winning playbook Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response The Memo: Immigration battle tests activists’ muscle 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 LevinCongress: The sleeping watchdog Congress must not give companies tax reasons to move jobs overseas A lesson on abuse of power by Obama and his Senate allies MORE (Mich.), Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration MORE (Calif.) and Banking Committee Chairman Tim JohnsonTimothy (Tim) Peter JohnsonCourt ruling could be game changer for Dems in Nevada Bank lobbyists counting down to Shelby’s exit Former GOP senator endorses Clinton after Orlando shooting 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 CantorEric Cantor: Moore ‘deserves to lose’ If we want to make immigration great again, let's make it bipartisan Top Lobbyists 2017: Hired Guns 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.