WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will launch a lobbying push Tuesday to stop Congress from approving harsh new penalties for Iran, a move the White House warns could sink international negotiations aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear program.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), has nearly completed sanctions legislation that it hopes to attach as an amendment to the annual, must-pass defense authorization bill, which could face a vote this week before Congress adjourns for the holidays.
The bipartisan group is "inches from finalizing a deal," according to a senior congressional aide who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly. It's not clear that both the House of Representatives and the Senate will vote to attach the amendment, as is required.
The amendment would seek to reduce Iran's remaining oil revenue — which has been cut by more than half as a result of earlier sanctions — almost to zero within a year after the new sanctions take effect.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry is expected to argue against the proposal when he testifies Tuesday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator with Iran, and David Cohen, the Treasury Department's sanctions chief, will appear later this week.
The White House has sought to forestall new sanctions since the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, acting as a diplomatic bloc, reached an interim deal with Iran two weeks ago.
Under the accord, Iran agreed to freeze or roll back most of its nuclear program over the next six months in exchange for what U.S. officials called temporary, reversible sanctions relief worth about $7 billion. The two sides are supposed to hammer out a more comprehensive deal by the end of the six months.
"Sanctions during the course of negotiations would be seriously counterproductive," Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, told reporters Monday.
In an interview with Time magazine, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that if Congress passes new sanctions, "the entire deal is dead." He added, "We don't like to negotiate under stress."
Advocates say the proposed penalties don't qualify as new sanctions because they would be imposed only if Iran failed to meet its obligations under the interim deal, or if it failed to complete a long-term deal over the next six months. The supporters argue that the threat of more penalties will help President Obama by building pressure on Iran to cooperate.
Administration officials fear that tough sanctions could drive Iran from the negotiating table, or prompt it to retaliate by stepping up its nuclear activities.
Members of the bipartisan group disagree over how much latitude Obama should be given to delay the sanctions.
The White House has pushed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Democratic caucus to block the proposed legislation, or at least allow Obama the flexibility he believes he needs to delay any new sanctions.
Politics are a factor in this week's skirmishing. Democrats in Congress don't want to allow their GOP rivals to accuse them in next year's midterm elections of being soft on Iran or weak in support of Israel.
A poll released Monday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, based in Washington, suggested that criticism of the interim deal has begun to register with the public. The poll showed that 43% of Americans disapproved of the deal, 32% approved and 25% were undecided. Two earlier polls showed pluralities favoring the deal.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times