Policy: National Security

Senators look to Harry Reid on Iran sanctions bill

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A bipartisan group of senators are continuing to vocally back an Iran sanctions bill despite President Obama's warnings that passing it would derail a six-month agreement with Tehran to roll back parts of its nuclear program.

The president on Monday implored lawmakers not to move a new sanctions bill, urging them to “give peace a chance” and allow time for diplomacy to work. He and other administration officials have argued that passing the bill would derail the negotiations with Iran and has pledged to veto any sanctions measure that arrives on his desk.

“What we want to do is give diplomacy a chance, and give peace a chance,” Obama told reporters Monday.

A vocal bipartisan group of senators say that view is naïve when dealing with Tehran and that the U.S. needs to do everything it can to keep to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill, who has authored a new Iran sanctions bill with Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, worried that the deal between Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers provides too much relief too soon while demanding too little in return.

“The question we're not asking here is the first couple of billion dollars the president gives the Iranians – what are they going to spend it on?” Kirk told reporters Monday night.

The Obama administration and five other world powers finalized a deal with Iran over the weekend to freeze aspects of its nuclear program.

In exchange for roughly $7 billion in sanctions relief, Iran — beginning Jan. 20 — will stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent and will begin to dilute its existing stockpile of 20 percent uranium. The lower levels of uranium enrichment are high enough for energy purposes but not enough to make nuclear weapons.

As part of the deal, Iran has agreed not to construct more centrifuges and to open its facilities to regular inspections for international investigators but it can still develop a more efficient centrifuge – potentially for future use – as long as it does not put it into practice.

Iran's continued development of an advanced centrifuge snagged negotiations in early January, and lawmakers say it shows that Tehran is only interested in sanctions relief and will restart its weapons development once the sanctions are dismantled.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers are backing a new sanctions bill they say will not impact the negotiations because it gives Obama more than a year to continue diplomacy before any new sanctions would kick in.

Support for the new measure has swelled since December, reaching 59 co-sponsors. Senate aides say a veto-proof majority — senators numbering well into the 70s — have pledged to support the bill if it comes to the floor for a vote.

Some on the right view the surge in Democratic support as a high-profile foreign policy break with Obama.

The president has scheduled a Wednesday night meeting with Senate Democrats to discuss “shared priorities,” a White House official said Monday.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he believes the bill strengthens the Obama administration's hand in negotiations with Iran and said he doesn't see why it would derail the deal because it specifically allows for one-year of diplomacy before imposing any new sanctions.

“I want the negotiations to succeed – I truly do, but I want the Iranians to know how serious we are and how bipartisan we are,” he said.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado who chairs the Senate Democrats' re-election committee, signed onto the Menendez-Kirk bill last week despite Obama's warnings it would jeopardize the negotiations with Iran.

“I believe there is universal hope among everybody that these negotiations are [a] success and there is also a universal feeling on Capitol hill that we can't let Iran ever have a nuclear weapon,” he told the Washington Examiner. “So what we have is a tactical difference not a philosophical difference, and I hope the talks are successful.”

Whether Democrats who are supporting the bill want it to pass Congress and become law or are just backing it to further threaten Iran remains to be seen.

Reid has placed the bill on the Senate's legislative calendar but has yet to commit to a vote.

When asked whether he wants a vote on the bill, Bennet said only: “I think we should take it one step at a time and see.”

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