Congress defies White House with new round of Iran sanctions

Congress is ramping up a new round of sanctions against Iran, ignoring the Obama administration's request to let diplomacy run its course.

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In back-to-back hearings this week, lawmakers on key House and Senate panels put the State and Treasury departments on notice that their patience is wearing thin after the latest round of talks last month failed to produce a deal. Both chambers have legislative efforts in the works – the House foreign affairs panel will vote next week – but the administration is warning against any moves that could undermine international support for the existing sanctions against Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said the administration's diplomacy won't succeed until Iran “truly feels a choice between maintaining power and the bomb.” And Senate Foreign Relations panel chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) declared that the existing sanctions “aren't enough, and they aren't working fast enough.”

“I called this hearing today because we are now at a crossroads in our Iran policy,” he said. “And the question today is, what do we do next?”

The ramped-up activity comes after Secretary of State John Kerry last month urged lawmakers to wait until after the June 14 elections to replace term-limited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before taking action. The two leading reformist candidates are under house arrest and the council charged with vetting candidates' Islamic credentials is expected to only approve of names on the ballot, but the State Department says the election results could yet impact Iran's nuclear policy.

“There's an enormous amount of jockeying going on, with the obvious normal tension between hard-liners and people who want to make an agreement,” Kerry told Menendez's panel last month. “We don't need to spin this up at this point in time.”

Congress has decided it's waited long enough, however.

Royce has announced a vote Tuesday on his bipartisan Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, which he introduced in February along with ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). The bill targeting significant commercial trade with Iran beyond the current oil sanctions now has 325 cosponsors.

Menendez meanwhile is working on his own legislation, which he is expected to introduce shortly. He offered a preview of what his bill would do during Wednesday's hearing when he said the United States needs to “double down" on four fronts: hitting the country's energy exports harder, creating new industry sanctions, getting the international community on board with tougher sanctions; and ramping up the military threat if Iran won't comply with international demands.

The State Department's Number 3 official, Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, appeared more amenable to Congress's position when she testified before both chambers Wednesday.

“Many of the things that you're looking at, are things that we support as well, and we are having ongoing, I think, staff-to-staff consultations in that regard,” she told the Senate panel. “We're looking at additional executive orders. We're looking at our military posture, and making sure that we continue to send signals. We're looking at our actions in Syria, which is very crucial to Iran's position in the world, and how we can bring that violence to an end, and help the opposition get the future they want in Syria. So there are many vectors to this approach.”

Still, she warned against imposing sanctions that other countries that depend on trade with Iran aren't willing or able to endorse.

“As we move forward,” she said, “it will be critical that we continue to move together and not take steps that undo the progress made so far. Doing such would signal divisions to Iran that it could and likely would exploit.”

Other lawmakers have also weighed in.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a member of the environment panel, introduced legislation on Thursday that calls for more drilling on federal U.S. lands in order to “dry up” Iranian exports.

And Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) introduced legislation Wednesday to restrict Iran's access to foreign reserves in order to bleed the country dry and trigger a hyperinflation crisis that could change the country's calculus on its nuclear program. The two lawmakers also have a more expansive draft bill that a Quaker group, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, has described as a “regime-change” effort because it links the lifting of sanctions to progress toward democracy and human rights.

Sanctions proponents dismiss the regime-change warning as an attempt to undermine something that has broad political support – sanctions – by raising the specter of a widely discredited policy following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Still, the mere mention of the words is already forcing lawmakers to adapt their messaging.

“Isn't one of our challenges here convincing the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] that this is a legitimate effort, a global effort about their nuclear weapons program?” Menendez asked Sherman. “And not about regime change.”

“Correct,” she answered. “We are about changing the behavior of the regime. Not the regime.

“I find the regime odious and certainly not a place I would want to live and raise my family. But nonetheless, this is a choice of the Iranian people and was the choice of the [1979] revolution way back when some 30-some-odd years ago.”

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