U.S. lawmakers seek new sanctions as Iran talks stall
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WASHINGTON — Lawmakers are considering more sanctions against Iran, over President Obama's objections, after international talks for an agreement in which the Islamic Republic would limit its nuclear program fell short.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., plans to advance a package of added economic penalties against Iran that could be lifted if an "acceptable" deal is struck.
"I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward on a package that ultimately will send a very clear message where we intend to be if the Iranians don't strike a deal to stop their nuclear weapons program," Menendez said on ABC's "This Week."
Republican lawmakers also called for action as they anticipated a Capitol Hill briefing by Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss criticism that the Obama administration hasn't sought a tough-enough deal in the Iran talks in Geneva. Kerry is scheduled to meet the Senate Banking Committee in a closed-door session on Nov. 13, and administration officials are also likely to brief congressional leaders, according to a Senate aide who asked not to be identified because the classified meeting hasn't been announced.
Many lawmakers share the view "that sanctions and the threat of military force is the only thing that's going to bring the Iranians to the table," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on CNN's "State of the Union."
The failure of Iran and six of the world's most powerful nations to reach a deal has created an opening for opponents in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Washington to lobby against any agreement before negotiations resume. The next round of talks is scheduled to begin Nov. 20, helping to spark an effort in Congress to get more leverage for the U.S. on a final deal that strictly limits Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons.
The agreement that was considered during talks in Geneva would have offered Iran a temporary easing of existing sanctions on petrochemicals, gold and auto trade and some access to frozen assets, according to diplomats who asked not to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak.
Brent crude advanced for a second day after the Geneva ended without an agreement. Brent for December settlement rose as much as 1.2 percent in London.
Kerry on Sunday defended U.S. participation in the talks, in the face of criticism from members of Congress and Israeli leaders who say negotiators should wait until existing economic sanctions can apply more pressure.
"We are not blind, and I don't think we're stupid," Kerry said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We have a pretty strong sense of how to measure whether or not we are acting in the interests of our country and of the globe, and particularly of our allies like Israel and Gulf states and others in the region."
The pause in talks won't just give members of Congress more time to weigh in but also will unleash more lobbying on Iranian sanctions and nuclear proliferation by outside groups. All told, groups that listed those areas on lobbying disclosure reports have spent $9.1 million in the three months ended Sept. 30, according to disclosure reports. The 31 groups that listed Iran among their lobbying issues include the American Petroleum Institute and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"If the facts of this deal are as troubling as the initial reports, CUFI will redouble its efforts to support the additional sanctions currently pending in the Senate," said David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, a group based in San Antonio, Texas, that is tracking the talks. "Sanctions got the Iranians back to the table, and only sanctions have a chance of producing meaningful concessions."
U.S. lawmakers are preparing to boost the penalties on Iran, even as some point out new sanctions couldn't be adopted and have much effect before the Geneva negotiations reconvene. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Sunday it could take months before any new sanctions take hold.
Criticisms of the direction of the talks have emerged from both chambers and in both political parties. The Republican-led House in late July approved a measure designed to clamp down on Iran's access to foreign-currency markets and other resources.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., last week criticized the Obama administration after reports that it might be willing to accept interim steps by Iran.
"Instead of toughening sanctions to get meaningful and lasting concessions, the Obama administration looks to be settling for interim and reversible steps," said Royce, whose panel will hold a hearing Wednesday to examine the status of the talks. "A partial freeze of enrichment, as we're hearing, is not a freeze."
The Senate Banking Committee is weighing legislation that would impose more curbs on Iran. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who leads the panel, is reserving judgment on any new measure until after that briefing, the Senate aide said.
Menendez favors a pending Senate proposal demanding that five nations — China, India, South Korea, Turkey and Japan — further curtail their purchases of Iranian crude oil and other petroleum products, said Adam Sharon, his spokesman.
Menendez discussed those sanctions on Oct. 28 at an AIPAC luncheon, saying he wants those nations to reduce purchases to a "de minimis" amount, with the goal of reducing Iran's oil sales by about half, to 500,000 barrels a day. Such action, combined with the existing sanctions that affect everything from energy to shipbuilding to mining "will come as close as possible" to a global trade embargo against Iran, according to his prepared remarks to AIPAC attendees.
Some foreign-policy analysts question whether that or any other new sanctions would make much difference.
Because Obama has opposed congressional action on further sanctions, that would impede their effectiveness in the talks, said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
"In the end, even though sanctions have brought them to the table, the prospects of additional ones during the middle of a negotiation when they know the administration isn't even supportive of those sanctions, is not going to have an impact," said Miller, who has served as an adviser on the Middle East to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.
Others disagree. Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he sees congressional action as likely, and he believes it could help the U.S. and its allies get more traction in the Iran talks.
The Iranians assume Obama won't take military action, and sanctions dangle a more believable penalty in front of its leaders, Abrams said. The U.S. negotiators also could point to political pressure they face for a strong deal, he said.
"It's useful for our negotiators to be backed up by a strong position from Congress so they can say to the Iranians, 'We can't make any concessions,'" said Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush where he supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East for the White House.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday urged Obama and other world leaders to reject any deal that doesn't curb or dismantle Iran's ability to produce a nuclear weapon.
In phone calls with the heads of five of the six countries negotiating a deal with Iran, "I told them that according to the information reaching Israel, the apparent deal is bad and dangerous," Netanyahu said in remarks broadcast from his weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. "It is dangerous not just for us, it is also dangerous for them."
Miller of the Wilson Center said that even if the talks result in some kind of agreement with Iran, it will probably be very limited, leaving members of Congress and allies of Israel and others continuing to push for more.
"This is not going to have a happy ending," Miller said. "It'll have an imperfect ending which may satisfy no one entirely — not us, not the Iranians, not the Israelis.
''But the alternative is to drift,'' he said. ''And the consequence of drifting is probably war.''
_ With assistance from Jonathan Tirone and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Geneva and Terry Atlas, David Lerman, Julie Bykowicz and Cheyenne Hopkins in Washington.