By Kristina Wong - 06/11/14 06:00 AM EDT
Senate Democrats face a dilemma over whether to buck the White House and press for new sanctions on Iran with bilateral talks on a nuclear deal almost certain to drag on for at least six more months.
Democrats held back on imposing tougher sanctions earlier this year after a full-court lobbying press by the White House, which argued the move would kill prospects for a historic deal.
That will force Democrats to either start a fight with the White House by pushing forward with sanctions or to back off again and risk losing leverage with Iran.
Critics in both parties argue the interim deal with Iran will allow that country’s nuclear program to move forward. They have said the threat of additional sanctions are necessary to put pressure on Iran to agree to a final deal. A six-month extension could serve to simply buy more time for Iran to delay, they say.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a lead sponsor of the Senate sanctions bill, wasn’t clear Tuesday on his next steps.
“If it’s just six months for six months’ sake, the answer would be no,” he told The Hill. “If they’re really close to an agreement which is in line with my thought about what an agreement should be, then we’d have to consider that at the time.”
Another Democratic sponsor, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), said he was skeptical that more time would help U.S. negotiators.
“I’d have concerns because I’m a skeptic, in terms of the Iranian regime’s intentions and whether they’ll ever be willing to make the full commitment that we would need,” he said.
“Even with determined efforts by the administration, it doesn’t seem like they’re going to get there, and so I’m not sure what an extension would accomplish.”
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Congress should give more time for negotiations.
“I believe that the negotiations should take place. It’s always been known that there well could be an extension, and it seems to me that the key is whether there’s an agreement or no agreement,” she told The Hill.
There is broad support for Menendez’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). It recently won its 60th supporter, meaning it could survive a Senate filibuster. Forty-three Republicans and 17 Democrats in the Senate are co-sponsors.
The bill would sanction Iranian petroleum imports, expand business and financial sanctions targeting several industrial sectors and ban foreign currency transactions with Iran’s Central Bank or designated persons. The sanctions would go into effect if Iran were to violate the interim agreement, under which it agreed to not enrich uranium above 5 percent, among other commitments.
Extending the talks by six months would mean Iran would continue to benefit from sanctions that were lifted last fall as part of the interim deal.
Feinstein said she could support continued sanctions relief for Iran, but other Democrats raised reservations.
Republicans are primed to attack the administration and to raise pressure on Democrats in the Senate.
“If we have to extend it, I think it just validates what a lot of us said, and that is Iran’s not really serious about discontinuing their nuclear program, and I think we need to impose as tough of sanctions and as many of sanctions as we can, early on,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) told The Hill.
The House has already approved tougher sanctions on Iran in a 400-20 vote backed by most Democrats in the lower chamber.
That adds to the tricky position for Senate Democrats.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was troubled that the administration lifted sanctions in the first place.
“If you ask me in the abstract, I would not generally be in favor of relieving any more sanctions until there’s a final deal,” he said, adding that the Senate missed an opportunity to pass a bill earlier this year.
However, he said, now that negotiators are nearing a deadline, senators should wait until at least July 20 to make that judgment.
“Anything that we do prior to July 20th is premature,” he said.