WASHINGTON – Leadership in Congress will introduce a bill within days that would trigger sanctions against Iran if talks over its nuclear program fail to reach an agreement, despite strong warnings from US President Barack Obama last week not to do so.
The bill will be "marked up" in committee on Thursday and introduced in the days before with "balanced co-sponsorship" from Democrats and Republicans, sources tell The Jerusalem Post. Obama delivers his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night.
Authors of the bill, formally titled the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, seek full enactment and will settle for nothing short. That suggests Republicans will attempt to whip a strong, bipartisan initial vote tally and, should passed legislation receive the president's veto, seek a second vote to override him.
Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron have made personal calls to senators lobbying against the bill. Multiple Senate aides say Cameron is the only foreign leader personally engaged.
"While the White House is demanding Congress not judge a final Iran deal until they submit, it's hypocritically prejudging constructive bipartisan Iran legislation before it's been formally introduced in the Senate," said one senior congressional aide, calling the bill a "diplomatic insurance policy."
"The White House has decided short-sightedly to agree with the Iranian regime's view that if you even whisper the word 'sanctions,' that's a violation," the aide continued.
Over the weekend, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee argued that their bill – first drafted over a year ago and never brought to the Senate floor – would not violate an interim agreement between world powers and Iran but would instead force concessions from Tehran in the nuclear talks.
"All I'm saying is let us put in prospective sanctions that don't get imposed until July," Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a news conference on Friday. He has a "fundamental disagreement" with the White House on the sanctions issue, he added.
Menendez and Senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) wrote the legislation.
Both of their staffs say the bill carefully recognizes the language of the Joint Plan of Action, an interim accord reached by negotiating powers last year that set the parameters for comprehensive talks.
That interim deal called on the US, consistent with the executive and legislative branches, to "refrain" from "imposing" new nuclear-related sanctions throughout the negotiations.
The bill includes a provision allowing for an unlimited number of extensions in the talks. But any extension after the current deadline, June 30, will require congressional waivers every thirty days. The president would be required to present evidence of Iranian compliance to receive the waivers.
If the bill were to pass and the talks ultimately fail, sanctions deferred or halted by the JPOA would be reimposed on Iran as of July 6.
By October, the US would close a loophole in its current sanctions law from banning the sale of Iranian crude oil to the prohibition of all petroleum products of Iranian origin. The bill would also demand that current international purchasers of Iranian oil reduce their intake to a "de minimis" level within a year, or face US sanctions themselves.
Previously, the president has granted several waivers to international powers such as China, for continuing to purchase Iranian crude.
The president would also be empowered to levy more financial sanctions on Tehran, and broadly target "special economic zones, or free economic zones in Iran, and entities in strategic sectors."
"I believe we need additional sanctions," Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) told CBS' Face The Nation on Sunday, adding he expects Congress will move forward with the bill. "I believe any deal with Iran requires congressional approval."
The Obama administration argues that the bill, if passed and signed into law, would hasten the collapse of negotiations – a failure that would be blamed on the United States.
The president's signature would make the bill a document of US law, the State Department says – enacted and effectively "imposed" preemptively, in a move that would technically violate a provision of the interim Joint Plan of Action.
The White House will seek immediate sanctions at the end of the talks if Iran cannot "get to yes," Obama said at a news conference with Cameron on Friday.
"Just hold your fire," Obama said, promising to veto any sanctions bill that reaches his desk. Cameron also said the UK opposed any new sanctions legislation at this time.
The president also warned against a "military showdown" should talks fail, in part due to congressional muscle.
"There is sometimes the view that this regime cannot be trusted; that, effectively, negotiations with Iran are pointless," the president said. "And since these claims are being made by individuals who see Iran as a mortal threat and want as badly as we do to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, the question then becomes: Well, what other alternatives exactly are available?"
"Congress should be aware," he continued, "that if this diplomatic solution fails, then the risks and likelihood that this ends up being at some point a military confrontation is heightened. And Congress will have to own that as well."
The draft language of the bill, posted online over the weekend, seeks to codify as US law, opposition to Iran's "inherent right" to retain a domestic uranium enrichment program. It also says the US position is to prevent Iran from obtaining a "nuclear weapon capability," which is the position of the Israeli government; the Obama administration says the president is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, in Geneva, "substantive progress is limited," one diplomat said, as talks continued at the political directors level.
"Experts will continue tomorrow morning," the diplomat said, after five days of talks included marathon discussions between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. "It is fair to say that everybody is committed to stepping up efforts."
A Chinese diplomat told reporters on the ground that high-level negotiations would continue in early February.Reuters contributed to this report.