The U.S. Senate won’t act on a House-passed bill expanding sanctions on Iran until senators have time to assess what emerges from the negotiations that begin later this week in Geneva between the Iranians and the international group known as P5+1, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (United States, France, Britain, Russia and China) plus Germany.
President Obama briefed a bipartisan group of leaders on defense, foreign policy and intelligence committees at the White House Tuesday morning, urging them to hold off “for a period of time” on the new legislation to give negotiators a chance to meet. In his view, the Iranians need some kind of evidence to take home to show that an agreement is possible and that they can get something in return for concessions regarding their nuclear program.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the leaders who met with the President, said members of Congress are worried about losing leverage over the Iranians if there is any premature easing of sanctions, but at the time they are concerned that the international coalition may weaken if the United States is seen as inflexible.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been demanding an uncompromising approach, insisting on keeping all the present sanctions in place and adding tough new measures. In his view, that is the only way to get the Iranians to make meaningful concessions. None of the P5+1 share that view, including the French, who have been the toughest negotiators of all.
Nothing is likely to happen in Congress until after the Thanksgiving recess, but then the defense spending bill will come up and there are likely to be several amendments proposing new sanctions. Some will be offered by lawmakers who genuinely feel the need to intensify pressure on the Iranians, some by grandstanding lawmakers who want to impress supporters, and others will simply be politically motivated tooppose anything Obama does, even at the risk of sabotaging the negotiations.
Advocates of tightening restrictions on Iran feel it would be nearly politically impossible for the President to veto the defense bill, and at any threat to do so they would attack him as soft on defense and soft on Iran.
The New York Times reported that Secretary of State John Kerry has not shared with Netanyahu all the details of the negotiations and the draft agreements, and “Israeli officials appear to have distorted what Iran would get in return” for any concessions it made.
U.S. officials suspect the distortions by Netanyahu, his strategic affairs minister Yuval Steinitz and others are deliberate attempts to whip up opposition to anything that does not meet the prime minister’s demands, and they are motivated by equal parts domestic politics and foreign policy.