President Obama’s continuing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program has entered a critical phase, as Republicans and a select group of Democrats in the Senate are trying to pass a bill that would impose strict new sanctions on Iran that could destroy the president’s fragile negotiations.
Obama is trying to stop more Senate Democrats from supporting the bill, which hopes to reduce Iran’s oil exports down to nothing. The bill currently has the support of 59 senators, including 16 Democrats, meaning it would need just a few more to have the two-thirds majority to override Obama’s threatened veto.
On Sunday the U.S. and Iran signed a six-month interim agreement to temporarily freeze Iran’s nuclear program in return for limited sanctions relief, but Iran officials have said they would walk away from the bargaining table if the U.S. enacts new sanctions during the negotiations.
In putting pressure on Congress, the White House has said the senators who vote for sanctions would be putting the two nations on a “march toward war.”
White House officials believe many senators actually want a war with Iran.
“It just stands to reason if you close the diplomatic option, you’re left with a difficult choice of waiting to see if sanctions cause Iran to capitulate, which we don’t think will happen, or considering military action,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told the New York Times.
But the senators think they actually should get credit for bringing Iran to the negotiating table. They claim the West needs the specter of additional sanctions as a “diplomatic insurance policy”—something that can be held over Iran if it reneges on the interim deal or the talks ultimately fail.
Obama and other senior officials have continued to meet with lawmakers to stop the rush to sanctions.
“My preference is for peace and diplomacy, and this is one of the reasons why I’ve sent the message to Congress that now is not the time for us to impose new sanctions,” the president said to reporters on Monday after meeting with Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy. “Now is the time for us to allow the diplomats and technical experts to do their work.”
Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada has so far resisted pressure to allow a vote on a sanctions bill. While he is a staunch Obama ally, he is also a strong supporter of Israel.
Reid’s aides offered assurances that he would not be bringing a bill to the Senate floor before the president’s State of the Union address on Jan. 28.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland and a strong supporter of the legislation, was offended by the White House’s pressure, particularly the use of the “march to war” language.
“I think they should regret using that language,” he said. “The bad actor is Iran.”