WASHINGTON – Obama administration officials entered talks with the Iranians in Geneva this week, carrying notable leverage courtesy of the US Congress.
As diplomats from the P5+1 countries began negotiations in earnest on Monday, Senate leaders told the White House that its sanctions regimen would only stiffen unless Iran agreed to concessions that would halt their nuclear work in its tracks.
Without such a deal in the next two days, sources tell The Jerusalem Post to expect Senate action “in short order” over the next six weeks, with Senate leadership on board for a full vote on harsh new legislation by the end of the year.
The White House is seeking maximum flexibility in any new sanctions policy – a nonpartisan request. And yet the stance of Congress presents US President Barack Obama with another stick as he calls on Iran to quickly demonstrate its commitment to a peaceful settlement of the crisis.
As the body responsible for tightening the screws, Congress has pushed for harsher and harsher sanctions on the Islamic Republic over the past three years, and enjoys exceptional bipartisan consensus on the issue, enabling it to move forward with relative ease.
“They have given the executive branch enough flexibility, I believe, if in fact Iran begins to meet the concerns of the international community,” said one senior administration official who consulted Congress before the Geneva talks. “We both want the same thing, and that is for Iran to never have a nuclear weapon and to address all the concerns of the international community.”
In a letter to Obama on Friday, 10 of the most influential senators on foreign policy said they would march forward with the harsh sanctions bill unless Tehran agreed to cease all uranium enrichment.
“The onus is on the Iranians to fulfill and implement a host of action items to include enrichment suspension, and in return, the senators are ‘willing to match,’” one congressional aide familiar with the letter told the Post on Monday. “But enrichment suspension remains paramount, and US military threat remains on the table.”
The new legislation would no longer allow the White House to exempt companies in allied countries from financial penalty for buying Iranian oil. A similar resolution that passed the House of Representatives in August, in a vote of 400 to 20, aims to bring Iranian oil exports down to zero. It also targets Iranian foreign exchange reserves, which are now estimated to be as low as $20 billion in unrestricted funds.
Rarely has Congress been so empowered to craft foreign policy as it has regarding Iran since 2011, when it worked in concert with the Obama administration to pass historic financial penalties.
“Congress has been an important partner in our efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told the Post.
Should a deal be reached with Tehran, the president could lift a majority of the sanctions currently in place, without congressional approval.
“We will continue our close consultation with the Congress, as we have in the past, so that any congressional action is aligned with our negotiating strategy as we move forward,” Meehan said.