A White House campaign to prevent Congress from imposing tougher sanctions on Iran won a temporary victory Tuesday, as key Democrats agreed to withhold their final support for legislation until at least March, giving international talks more time to produce an agreement on Tehran's nuclear program.
As the Senate Banking Committee began considering a bipartisan bill to apply new sanctions if a deal is not reached by June, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a cosponsor of the legislation, and nine other Democratic supporters signed a letter to President Obama acknowledging his concern that congressional action now could derail the delicate negotiations.
The 10 Democrats emphasized that they remain "deeply skeptical" that Iran will make the concessions necessary for an acceptable deal, but nonetheless pledged not to vote to approve the new sanctions bill until after March 24, a deadline they said was "a critical test of Iranian intentions."
Menendez's move follows intense wrangling between Congress and the White House over the talks among Iran and six world powers, including the United States. The negotiations seek to gradually lift international sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country's agreement to abide by restrictions that ensure it cannot build a nuclear weapon.
This month, Obama asked lawmakers to hold off, warning that the Menendez bill, cosponsored by Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), could derail the Iran talks. Days later, in his State of the Union address, Obama said he would veto the legislation if it reached his desk.
The next day, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, where the Israeli leader is expected to call for tougher sanctions on Iran. Netanyahu accepted the invitation in apparent violation of diplomatic protocol by not first coordinating with the White House, casting a partisan shadow over the issue and leading some Democrats to have second thoughts about supporting the bill.
"There's always been a worry among many of us that Republicans' views on negotiations with Iran are irrevocably colored by their politics," Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) said in an interview. "The invitation to Netanyahu is confirmation for some people of that."
The Menendez letter to Obama could lower the temperature of the Iran discussion for the time being, giving the administration space to focus on the negotiations.
The Democrats' shift was also a sign of Congress' reluctance to get any blame for torpedoing talks. Vice President Joe Biden was among the senior administration officials involved in a full-scale lobbying campaign by the White House to press Democrats for more time, several congressional aides said.
Though Republicans now control 54 seats in the Senate, they need Democratic support to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, or the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.
This week, Sens. Murphy and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution in support of diplomatic talks, putting Menendez at risk of losing other Democratic supporters for his bill.
"I think he saw this [letter to Obama] as a way to help keep their side unified on the sanctions," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who succeeded Menendez as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee this month. "As a nation we need to stay unified and keep the focus on Iran. And I think that's what his goal is."
Republicans, too, have proved to be divided. Some hawks, such as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have not pushed for a quick vote on the Kirk-Menendez legislation, instead backing a less controversial bill from Corker that would require any final nuclear agreement to be submitted to Congress for approval.
"If we can reach a bipartisan consensus that the Corker-Graham bill is a better approach for Congress to be involved, looking at the deal after it occurs, I would be OK with that in lieu of sanctions," said Graham, who has cosponsored the measure.
Though Obama has succeeded in reducing the likelihood of sanctions before late March, he may face even greater pressure later if the negotiations do not yield a deal, analysts said. Corker said that the Kirk-Menendez bill, which is still expected to be voted out of the Senate Banking Committee this week, would be ready for a floor debate should the March 24 deadline come and go.
"The president has fought this off — for this round," said Lara Friedman, director of policy at Americans for Peace Now, a left-leaning, pro-Israel advocacy group. If negotiators have not reached agreement with Iran by the end of March, "he's going to be in the awkward position of trying to make the same case with Congress again."
Appearing before the Banking Committee on Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared to suggest that the March deadline was flexible, and that the real end point of negotiations would be the end of June. Although negotiators are seeking to agree on a framework by March 24, "we have until June to see if we can get to 'yes,'" he told the committee.
Representatives of Iran and six world powers have been negotiating steadily since 2013. They extended negotiations in July and November after missing previous deadlines.
Negotiators on both sides say there has been substantial progress, but they remain deeply divided on core issues. These include how much of a uranium enrichment program Iran will be allowed to retain, the duration of a deal and how quickly U.S. and international sanctions will be lifted.
At Tuesday's hearing, Menendez said that after 18 months of negotiations, new sanctions may be inevitable.
"Iran is procrastinating because the longer the negotiations last, the further the [international coalition] moves in their direction," Menendez said. "Without prospective sanctions that are ready to be implemented, our only option may very well be what some of my friends are worried about — either a military one or accepting Iran as a nuclear weapons state. Neither are desirable."