Republican senator: Democrats ‘procedurally blocked’ new Iran sanctions bill

By Michael Wilner

Senator implies sanction legislation on hold for time being; Obama says first-step deal will give Iran only limited sanctions relief.

US President Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama  Photo: Reuters

WASHINGTON — The highest-ranking Republican member of the Senate  Foreign Relations Committee is accusing Democrats of blocking progress on a bill  that would further sanction Iran for its continued nuclear  work.

“Democrats have procedurally blocked the Senate from taking any  action on Iran this week,” Bob Corker (R-Tenn), said in a statement. “As such,  we will closely monitor what happens in Geneva and examine the details of any  interim deal.”

The comments politicize an issue often treated as bipartisan on  Capitol Hill. Both Democrats and Republicans have called on the White House to  restrict its concessions to Iran as much as possible in the negotiating process,  and have disagreed only over the timing of the new sanctions language, which  would ruthlessly target Iran’s remaining oil exports and access to foreign  exchange reserves.

Corker’s comments come just after a meeting with US  President Barack Obama at the White House, and as a delegation of US diplomats  is in transit to Switzerland, where they will try and cut an interim agreement  with Iran that would include limited sanctions relief.

Obama personally lobbied key members of the  Senate on Tuesday not to move forward with new sanctions legislation against  Iran, just a day before the third round of negotiations were set to begin in  Geneva

The  meeting came shortly after Iranian parliamentarians warned that, should new  sanctions proceed through the US Congress, Iran would pull its diplomats from  the negotiating table.

The long, detailed White House meeting focused on  the technicalities of the prospective “first step” deal being forged in  Switzerland between Iran and the P5+1 – the United States, the United Kingdom,  Russia, China, France and Germany – and not on rising tensions between the White  House and Israel’s government over how best to proceed.

“The president  underscored that, in the absence of a first step, Iran will continue to make  progress on its nuclear program by increasing its enrichment capacity,  continuing to grow its stockpile of enriched uranium, installing advanced  centrifuges, and making progress on the plutonium track,” White House Spokesman  Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing.

In a prepared statement released  after the meeting, the White House said that the discussion, which lasted over  two hours, had included a lengthy explanation by the president as to why a  six-month interim agreement – temporarily halting key aspects of Iran’s nuclear  program in exchange for marginal sanctions relief – was in the US’s best  national security interests.

“The president noted that the relief we are  considering as part of a first step would be limited, temporary and reversible,  and emphasized that we will continue to enforce sanctions during the six-month  period,” the statement read.

“The president is determined to prevent Iran  from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and firmly believes that it would be preferable  to do so peacefully,” it continued.

“Therefore, he has a responsibility  to pursue the ongoing diplomatic negotiations before pursuing other  alternatives.”

According to the statement, Obama “dispelled the rumors  that Iran would receive $40 billion or $50b. in relief, noting those reports are  inaccurate” – a reference to figures first floated by Intelligence Minister  Yuval Steinitz last week.

Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, told CNN on Tuesday the amount of Iranian assets that would be unfrozen under the deal with Iran would be less than $10 billion.

“We’re talking about a modest amount of money,” she said.

Obama injected a note of caution on the prospect of closing a deal with Iran, telling a Wall Street Journal forum on Tuesday that, “We don’t know if we’ll be able to close a deal with Iran this week or next week.”

After meeting with the president, Senator  Corker implied that any new legislative push was on hold for the time  being.

“Let’s face it,” Corker said to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “At the end of  the day, there aren’t going to be new sanctions put in place” before Geneva. And  “Senator [Harry] Reid has filled the tree,” he said, describing the Senate  majority leader’s ability to prevent new amendments from getting floor time for  consideration.

“Congress has no say on the easing of sanctions,” Corker  added. “The president has full waiver authority.”

Senator Mark Kirk announced Tuesday evening that he will pursue an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act with fellow Republicans this week that would include the sanctions language, bucking the White House. But it’s unclear whether Reid will allow that to happen.

One source familiar  with the legislation told The Jerusalem Post that if negotiators clinched an  interim deal this weekend, progress on the new sanctions bill was “unlikely”  before December of this year – if at all.

But that has not stopped  lawmakers in both chambers from urging the Obama administration to toughen the  deal going into talks on Wednesday.

A bipartisan group of senators, many  of whom met with the president on Tuesday, wrote to US Secretary of State John  Kerry that the deal under consideration in Geneva allowed up to $10b.

in  sanctions relief – too high a price for too few concessions, they  asserted.

“While the interim agreement may suggest that Iran could be  willing to temporarily slow its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, it  could also allow Iran to continue making some progress toward that end under the  cover of negotiations,” the senators wrote. “This does not give us confidence  that Iran is prepared to abandon unambiguously its nuclear weapons pursuit  altogether, as it must.”

The group included senators Robert Menendez,  John McCain, Bob Casey and Charles Schumer, among others.

At the House of  Representatives – which already passed its version of the sanctions bill last  summer – congressmen Ed Royce (R-California), who chairs the House Foreign  Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel (D-New York), ranking member of the  committee, sent a letter to the president on Tuesday cautioning against a deal  that would allow Iran to continue progressing in its nuclear program in any  capacity.

“Mr. President, the United States cannot allow Iran to continue  to advance toward a nuclear weapons capability while at the same time providing  relief from the sanctions pressure we worked so hard to build, and the  Administration has worked to enforce,” the congressmen wrote.

In his  interview with CNN, Corker said the administration did not see the deal as a  “fait accompli” going into talks, describing the interim agreement as far from  certain.

Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman  flew to Geneva on Tuesday to lead the US negotiating team.

Her first  meeting on Wednesday will be with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, the  State Department said.

Responding to concerns aired repeatedly and  publicly by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that the Geneva deal is shaping up  poorly for Israel, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that it was his  “prerogative” to express his opinion as negotiations continued.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu

“I think  you can both respect concerns and also disagree with them,” Psaki said. “I  certainly don’t refute the notion that there’s a difference of  opinion….

One of the reasons we’re pursuing this is because of Israel’s  security.”

Psaki said that US diplomats entering the third round of talks  were “hopeful about the path forward.”

“There’s either a diplomatic path,  or a path toward aggression.

We continue to believe that,” she said. “If  this does not work, we will be leading the charge for more  sanctions.”

Meanwhile, in Tehran, Iranian Jews demonstrated Tuesday outside a United Nations facility in support of Iran’s declared right to  peaceful nuclear energy, as protected by the Nuclear Non-proliferation  Treaty.

“Jews from all Iranian Jewish communities, especially from  Tehran, will take part in this gathering to show their solidarity with the  Islamic Republic of Iran’s stances in the recent talks, especially the issues  proposed to Group 5+1,” said Siamak Marreh Sedq, representative of the Jewish  minority in Iran’s Parliament, in announcing the rally.

The Post could  not confirm attendance at the rally.

The US notes that the NPT protects  the right of all nations to peaceful nuclear power, but it objects to Iran’s  claim that the treaty protects Tehran’s right to enrich uranium. Reuters contributed to this report.

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