Near the end of a brief statement in the wee hours of Saturday night announcing what was billed as a historic agreement with Iran, President Barack Obama delivered a terse warning to the one party he thinks could get in the way.
“Over the last few years, Congress has been a key partner in imposing sanctions on the Iranian government, and that bipartisan effort made possible the progress that was achieved today,” Obama said.
“Going forward, we will continue to work closely with Congress. However, now is not the time to move forward on new sanctions — because doing so would derail this promising first step, alienate us from our allies and risk unravelling the coalition that enabled our sanctions to be enforced in the first place.”
It says something that Obama is at least equally as worried about his own Congress disrupting the process as he is Iran, a country whose leader Obama didn’t even speak to until late September. Obama can bypass Congress and enact approximately $US6 billion to $US7 billion in sanctions relief in Iran, which is what the deal signed by Secretary of State John Kerry calls for. But there is the possibility of Congress passing further sanctions after it returns from the Thanksgiving recess.
Obama has good reason to fear Congress taking further action. In the immediate hours after the deal was announced, a bipartisan group of members of Congress voiced scepticism and outright opposition to the deal.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a key White House ally, said he was “disappointed” in the disproportional nature of the deal in Iran’s favour.
“This agreement makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when we return in December,” Schumer said in a statement Sunday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday that the Iran agreement was an “important first step,” echoing the Obama administration. But he was non-committal on whether or not further sanctions would be necessary.
“The way that I feel about it today is the same way that I felt about it last week,” Reid said on “The Diane Rehm Show.”
“I said when we come back we’ll take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions.”
Reid said that he would leave much of that determination to Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), the chair of the Banking Committee.
On Sunday, Menendez similarly criticised what he perceived as a more one-sided deal that benefits Iran. However, he said that he expected any further sanctions legislation would provide for a six-month window on the interim agreement, allowing for negotiators to work on a permanent deal.
It sounds like a neat deadline now, and one that would allow Congress to pass sanctions legislation that takes effect in six months if no permanent deal is reached.
In reality, there are a flurry of potential complications that could strain Obama’s position both with Congress and with the other world powers in the Iran negotiations. What if negotiations aren’t complete, and both sides want more time? Practically and politically, that situation would be tough situation through which lawmakers would have to navigate.
In a brief interview with Business Insider last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the main hawks in the Senate on Iran, said that he was working on developing a bipartisan letter that would outline what a “good outcome” would look like out of any permanent deal.
“My belief is if we don’t put additional sanctions on the table, it’s going to be a very bad outcome,” Graham said, in comments made Monday. “The worst possible thing to do is to let the Iranians know that the pressure is off until we get the deal that we want.”
Graham said a good permanent deal with Iran would have them “get out of the enrichment business,” while dismantling a heavy-water reactor in Arak. If Iran wants a peaceful nuclear power program, Graham said that the international community should control the fuel cycle. Graham was in full opposition to what was then the possibility of an interim deal, which wouldn’t provide a clear view of the end game.
Several Senate aides told Business Insider that it’s too early to tell where things will go in the chamber. Members are on recess for the next two weeks, and there haven’t been any firm discussions about strategy. One senior Senate Democratic aide said he can foresee “a bunch of possibilities next month,” but didn’t go into details about what those possibilities were.
And if Obama doesn’t want any new sanctions on the table, he could veto them.
“Of course, yes,” Reid said Monday, when asked about the possibility.
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