WASHINGTON – US Vice President Joe Biden led a high-powered delegation to Capitol Hill on Thursday to try to persuade US lawmakers to hold off on any more sanctions against Iran and let delicate diplomatic talks over Tehran's nuclear program unfold.
Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew held a closed-door session with Senate Democratic leaders and Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Banking Committee to update them on major power talks with Iran. A new round of negotiations is set for next week in Geneva.
The Obama administration is seeking maximum flexibility going into the second round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear drive. The talks are scheduled to open on November 7 in Geneva.
“We asked for a pause, to provide flexibility, of new sanctions,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday.
“We believe that congressional action needs to be aligned with our negotiating strategy.”
An official in Biden's office said existing sanctions have "gotten us to where we are today, to have the opportunity to test Iranian intentions to seek an enduring diplomatic solution."
"No one is suggesting an open-ended delay for new sanctions, and there may come a point where additional sanctions are necessary," the official said, but Congress should reserve its ability to legislate when it is most effective.
"The window for negotiation is limited, and if progress isn't made, there may be a time when more sanctions are in fact necessary. We have always said that there would be no agreement overnight and we've been clear that this process is going to take some time," the official said.
The package under consideration in the Senate would aim to halve Iran’s oil exports, imposing a maximum number of barrels per day before prompting mandatory restrictive measures on buyers.
The White House finds itself negotiating not with members of the Republican Party, but with fellow Democrats.
A similar resolution for anti-Iran sanctions passed the House of Representatives in August with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D–New Jersey), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a leading proponent of the current bill.
"I'm not ready to commit" to further delay, Menendez told reporters Thursday.
Republican Senator Mark Kirk, who strongly opposes any move to hold off on sanctions, said that if the banking committee delays its vote, he would seek to add more Iran sanctions to a defense authorization bill that could come to the Senate floor in November.
Others said they were more open to the appeal for a delay.
"I am mindful of the fact that maybe these discussions will bear fruit, and so we'll see," Republican Senator Mike Johanns said, although he added that any delay would not be long.
Democratic Senator Tim Johnson, chairman of the Banking Committee, said he had not yet decided whether to put off the committee's vote on new sanctions again. The banking panel, which has jurisdiction over sanctions bills, has delayed the measure from September at the administration's request.
Administration officials question the timing of the legislation and insist that the existing sanctions regime will be vigorously enforced until Iran follows through on its promises with meaningful, verifiable concessions.
Before the first round of talks in Geneva last month, a bipartisan group of senators told the White House that the only way to stop new sanction legislation was to convince the Iranians to freeze all uranium enrichment.
Tehran has called enrichment an inalienable national right.
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