On the eve of new nuclear negotiations with Iran, the top Republican senator on the Foreign Relations Committee is considering legislation that would prevent President Obama from loosening sanctions on the Tehran regime.
“We’ve crafted an amendment to freeze the administration in and make it so they are unable to reduce the sanctions unless certain things occur,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told The Daily Beast in an interview Wednesday. “They have the ability now to waive sanctions. But we’re very concerned that in their desire to make any deal that they may in fact do something that is very bad for our country.”
Corker said that his new legislative language would freeze the administration’s ability to waive sanctions currently in place until or unless Iran agrees to large concessions on its nuclear and missile programs. The concessions Corker is demanding go way beyond the incremental deal being contemplated this week in Geneva, where Iran will meet with officials from the U.S. and the other countries in the P5+1 group, which includes Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany.
The new legislation, if passed, could throw a wrench into the administration’s plans to use incremental confidence building measures, including some sanctions relief for Iran, as a means of continuing the nuclear negotiations into next year.
Under Corker’s plan the Obama administration would be barred from using the waivers that are currently on the books to create limited exemptions to the sanctions program unless Iran agrees to stop all enrichment and reprocessing and adhere to U.N. Security Council Resolutions now in place. For the Iranians to comply with those terms they would need to suspend all work on their heavy water reactor at Arak, suspend all work and testing on ballistic missiles, and come clean with the IAEA on all military dimensions of their nuclear program.
“This would keep an interim deal from happening unless there is actual tangible changes that take place," Corker said.
He acknowledged that Congress can’t stop the administration from doing certain things to reduce pressure on Iran, such as having the Europeans relieve some sanctions following the Geneva negotiations.
Corker hasn’t decided if or how to bring up his new amendment. It could be proposed as an addition to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is set to come up in the Senate later this month. The NDAA is considered a must-pass bill because it sets military and defense policy for the entire year, meaning that if Congress agrees to Corker’s amendment, it would be difficult for Obama to avoid signing the bill.
The Senate Banking Committee, which Corker also sits on, might mark up new Iran sanctions legislation on its own and Corker might add his amendment to that legislation, he said.
The Obama administration has resisted calls to change its policy, with the president making calls asking senators for a 60-day delay in new sanctions. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry met with senators behind closed doors Oct. 31 on Capitol Hill and also urged them to delay action on new Iran sanctions.
"Congress has been and will continue to be our most important partner in our shared efforts to address the Iranian nuclear issue and we have used our sanctions authorities aggressively and to great effect," an administration official said, denying that the administration had opposed sanctions legislation at every stage.
Corker said he wants to be a part of any new sanctions effort but right now Congress must act to take away Obama’s power to give Iran sanctions relief unless Iran agrees to concessions that meet his concerns.
“We’re not opposed to the effort underway relative to new sanctions. We just think that’s going to have no effect on the administration in the here and now,” said Corker. “We’re very concerned that in their desire to make any deal that they may in fact do something that is very bad for our country. We think that is the greater threat to our country right now.”
Other plans for new sanctions are also being developed despite the administration’s attempts to dissuade Senators from interfering with the current program. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is preparing sanctions legislation now, which could also be added to the NDAA when it hits the Senate floor. Kirk’s language would tighten existing sanctions by imposing a quarantine on all remaining overseas Iranian government assets, including oil revenues and foreign exchange reserves held overseas, and reaffirm the existing quarantine on the transfer of any precious metals to Iran, according to Senate aides familiar with the amendment. Kirk’s language would also allow Obama flexibility to suspend the quarantine if Iran complies with U.N. Security Council resolutions, but would take away that flexibility if Iran cheats.
The Senate Armed Services Committee could start work on the 2014 NDAA as soon as Nov. 18 and, without significant setbacks, send it to the president’s desk by the end of the calendar year.
Pro-Israel groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, support the imposition of additional sanctions on Iran but aren’t actively lobbying Congress on the issue.
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the head of the U.S. negotiating team in Geneva, said last week that the administration is asking Congress to delay any new sanctions legislation on Iran, in order to give the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries a chance to bear fruit.
“We’ve asked for a pause to give us just a few weeks to see if in fact we can get a first step agreement that would stop the advance of Iran’s nuclear program and we don’t think waiting a few weeks should hurt the effort here,” she said on MSNBC Nov. 1. “In fact, I have said to Iran and have used it in leverage in the negotiation that we’ve asked the Congress for a pause and if Iran moves forward than that pause can be there. If Iran does not move forward then we will of course continue our strong partnership as we have today with the Congress to impose new sanctions.”
Of course, the administration has opposed sanctions legislation against Iran at every stage over the last two years, often angering top lawmakers, including SFRC Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who has worked on various Iran sanctions bills and amendments with Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).
"What I do not understand is a negotiating posture in which we suspend our actions, we give them sanctions relief on existing sanctions, yet they continue to be able to enrich, to be able to have more sophisticated centrifuges,” Menendez told CNN.
The P5+1 countries begin a new round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program Thursday in Geneva. The talks are expected to last two days.
Asked why he thinks the Obama administration is so eager to make an incremental deal with the Iranian regime, Corker said, “Maybe because of their strong desire to justify their actions in Syria.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to include a response from an administration official.