Senators introduce new Iran sanctions bill; White House says will veto

In Washington last week, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, center, heads to a briefing for senators on the status of nuclear talks with Iran.
In Washington last week, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, center, heads to a briefing for senators on the status of nuclear talks with Iran.
(Michael Reynolds/ European Pressphoto Agency)

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of 26 senators Thursday introduced legislation calling for tough new Iran sanctions that the White House warned could deal a death blow to upcoming negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Despite frantic lobbying by the White House, a group that includes top Democrats introduced a measure that would tighten economic sanctions on Iran if it doesn’t cooperate in the upcoming talks, and also sets a minimum requirement for a final deal to curb the nation’s nuclear development activities. Washington and other Western powers fear Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons; Tehran says its nuclear program is for civilian energy purposes only.

The White House warned that the sanctions bill could drive Iran from the negotiating table, or unravel the coalition of nations that has been pressuring Iran to accept curbs on its nuclear program.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said President Obama would veto the bill. “We don’t want to see actions that would proactively undermine American diplomacy,” he said.


Such strong reaction was highly unusual at the mere introduction of a bill. But sanctions legislation has been an almost unstoppable force on Capitol Hill, and many lawmakers believe that if the bill is allowed to come to a vote it could receive lopsided support.

Colin Kahl, a former Obama Defense official who has been an outspoken advocate for diplomatic efforts with Iran, said the new sanctions could lead to a “diplomatic train wreck.”

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and chief Iran negotiator Wendy R. Sherman have all been heavily lobbying lawmakers to hold off on new sanctions until the conclusion of the upcoming talks, which could last a year or more.

Introduction of the bill is a sharp rebuff to their efforts, especially since the co-sponsors include Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In all, 13 Democrats joined 13 Republicans on the bill.

Iranian officials last week reacted angrily to the administration’s steps to tighten enforcement of existing sanctions, and threatened to walk away from the negotiations. But pro-sanctions legislators contend that Iran’s economy has been so crippled by sanctions that Iran cannot afford to abandon talks. They say the threat of additional sanctions gives Obama additional leverage in the negotiations, which may begin next month.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a chief author of the sanctions legislation, said the bill wold be “an insurance policy to defend against Iranian deception.”

The legislation says Obama would have to certify to Congress every 30 days that Iran was living up to a preliminary nuclear agreement signed Nov. 24 in Geneva. It would not require new penalties until a year after negotiations began.

It also calls for the United States to “stand with Israel” if Israel “is compelled to take military action in legitimate defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”


The legislation says Iran would be required to dismantle its “illicit nuclear infrastructure,” though it doesn’t necessarily require it to give up all uranium enrichment, as some hard-liners in Washington would like. One senior Senate aide said the bill was designed to give Obama “lots of flexibility” while sending a message to Iran that a breakdown of talks would bring stronger sanctions.

The Senate’s Democratic leadership may be able to block the bill; Press Secretary Carney said the administration did not believe it would pass.

But Democrats are fearful that if they don’t support Iran sanctions, they will be attacked by Republicans as being too soft on Iran and insufficiently supportive of Israel. Many hawkish and pro-Israel groups have made passage of new sanctions legislation a top priority.

Ten Democratic senators, taking a stand against the bill, wrote a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warning that new sanctions would “play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.”


The letter notes that a U.S. intelligence community assessment warned this month that new sanctions would “undermine the prospects” for a nuclear deal.

But in a sign of the political risks involved, four of the 10 Democrats who signed the letter are soon to retire – Sens. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Carl Levin of Michigan, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Tom Harkin of Iowa. The letter was also signed by California’s two senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.