WASHINGTON – While US President Barack Obama made final edits to his fifth State of the Union address on Tuesday, senior Senate aides relayed conflicting messages on the future of a key bill introduced last month threatening Iran with new sanctions should negotiations fail to dismantle its nuclear program.
Jockeying on the Hill reflected tense politics surrounding the future of the bill, which the president firmly opposes, warning that its passage through the Senate would derail talks between Iran and world powers.
A bloc of 19 Democratic senators is protesting the bill, as are foreign allied dignitaries in London and Paris. However, 59 senators from both parties openly support the legislation, which gives the president up to a year to negotiate a comprehensive solution to the nuclear impasse before triggering new sanctions on Iran’s oil sector, upon presidential approval.
Proponents of the bill, written by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), seek an “insurance policy” on Iran during the negotiations process, afraid that an interim deal that only temporarily halts Iran’s nuclear program might become a new status quo in the longstanding crisis.
A recent meeting of Senate Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), reportedly resulted in a decision not to proceed with the legislation, Reuters claimed on Tuesday.
Senators first returned to Washington yesterday after a ten-day recess, raising questions as to when the meeting would have taken place.
Senate aides from both parties familiar with the bill said they were unaware of such a meeting, or of whether a decision had been made on how to proceed, one way or another.
“The truth is that Republicans have been holding back to try to maintain the bipartisan support that we know this issue engenders across the nation,” one senior Republican Senate aide told The Jerusalem Post. “But if Leader Reid wishes to defy the will of the majority of the Senate and the majority of the American people, Republicans will be forced to take partisan steps to try to force a vote.”
For the most part, the politics of Iran are typically placid and bipartisan in Washington, with a steady 80 percent of Americans distrustful of the Islamic Republic and, in general, supportive of more sanctions than less.
But fewer than one in ten Americans considers foreign policy a priority. That will be reflected in the president’s speech Tuesday night, as he is unlikely to spend much time discussing the Middle East.
The White House hopes the issue can remain bipartisan, and insists Obama will support swift action on sanctions should talks fail in six months’ time.
The president has threatened to veto the bill should it pass through the Senate and reach his desk.