The Senate is heading toward round two in the fight over the Iran nuclear deal.
Senators are considering extending a package of sanctions against Tehran set to expire next year. The sanctions law—known as the Iran Sanctions Act—includes provisions targeting Iran’s nuclear program, as well as ballistic missies and the country's energy sector.
“I think it’s likely that Congress will act on it sometime next year,” Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinOvernight Defense & National Security — US tries to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine Senate eyes plan B amid defense bill standoff Senators propose sanctions against Iran over alleged plot to kidnap US journalist MORE (D-Md.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill before lawmakers left for the holiday recess.
He said senators suggested during a December briefing that they were looking at an extension as early as January or February, trying to get Stephen Mull, Obama’s point person on the deal, to weigh in on the potential timeline.
Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsBipartisan senators earmark billion to support democracies globally House passes bill to expedite financial disclosures from judges Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems seek to preserve climate provisions MORE (D-Del.) said earlier this month during a Foreign Relations hearing that "in January many members of Congress will call for the swift renewal" of the sanctions law.
But that timing could coincide with the deal's “implementation day,” potentially putting the administration in the awkward position of trying to lift sanctions against Iran just as lawmakers try to extend them.
Supporters of extending the sanctions law say it’s needed so the administration, or future administrations, has the ability to “snap back” sanctions into place if Iran violates the nuclear deal.
They argue that a pair of recent missile tests—which have frustrated lawmakers in both parties—underscores the worry that Iran will try to cheat on the nuclear agreement.
They are pressing Obama to send a clear message that he’s prepared to hold Tehran accountable, including leaving the sanctions law on the table.
“How you respond to this challenge will send a message to the Iranian regime about its compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” Sen. Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezFive ways Senate could change Biden's spending plan Spending bill faces Senate scramble Republicans raise concerns over Biden's nominee for ambassador to Germany MORE (D-N.J.) wrote in a letter to Obama this month.
He said it would be a “good start” for the president to use existing authorities to target individuals—including freezing their assets—if they support Iran’s ballistic missile program.
He also urged the president to publicly support legislation he drafted with Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (R-Ill.) that would provide for a 10-year extension of the Iran Sanctions Act.
That proposal, which is backed by Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' House to vote on Uyghur bill amid diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics This week: Congress poised to go into December overtime MORE (R-Fla.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' Bob Dole: heroic, prickly and effective Democrats see Christmas goal slipping away MORE (R-Texas), two presidential contenders, has languished in the Banking Committee. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the committee chairman, however, suggested he backs extending the sanctions.
“Anything to tighten up on Iran, the behavior that they have exhibited and will exhibit in the future, they’re on the right track,” he said ahead of the recess.
Separately, Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has suggested that his panel will be turning its focus to Iran and the sanctions law, as he and Cardin pledge “rigorous” oversight of the deal.
“Now we’re going to begin to look at steps we want to take legislatively,” he told The Hill earlier this year. “I’m certain that will be one of the steps.”
But any effort to renew the legislation would likely get pushback from the Obama administration—and some of its staunchest allies in Congress—over concerns that any new sanctions could be considered by Iran to be a violation of the agreement.
Asked if Iran would consider an extension of the law a breach, Mull suggested it was unclear, during a December Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineLiberty University professor charged with alleged sexual battery and abduction of student Senate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill Menendez jabs State official over Colombian group's terror designation MORE (D-Va.) pushed back against the notion that the ballistic missile tests should shift the debate on extending the Iran Sanctions Act.
“I don’t think activity on the non-nuclear side should change the schedule on the JCPOA,” he said, but added that the administration should “go fervently” after Iran if it doesn't comply.
Administration officials have been cool to extending the law, arguing that they have other resources to hold Iran accountable for any potential violation of the deal without an extension of the sanctions law.
To get an extension through the Senate, Republicans will need the four Democrats who opposed the Iran deal, including Menendez and Cardin, and at least two additional Senate Democrats who supported the nuclear agreement to back the sanctions legislation.
Democratic Sens. Chris Coons (Del.) and Gary Peters (Mich.) have both said they support an extension, though they haven’t specifically backed the Kirk-Menendez bill.
Corker went further earlier this year predicting that an extension would be able to get 67 votes—enough to overcome any potential veto.
Cardin, asked how he could convince skeptical Democrats who supported the Iran deal, suggested they were separate issues.
“I don’t think it’s whether you’re for or against the deal,” he said. “I think we all agree that if you’re going to snapback, it’s easier to have the framework in place than trying to pass the framework in the midst of trying to do a snapback.”