Republican senator: Democrats 'procedurally blocked' new Iran sanctions bill

Senator implies sanction legislation on hold for time being; Obama says first-step deal will give Iran only limited sanctions relief.

US President Barack Obama 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
US President Barack Obama 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
WASHINGTON -- The highest-ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is accusing Democrats of blocking progress on a bill that would further sanction Iran for its continued nuclear work.
"Democrats have procedurally blocked the Senate from taking any action on Iran this week," Bob Corker (R-Tenn), said in a statement. "As such, we will closely monitor what happens in Geneva and examine the details of any interim deal."
The comments politicize an issue often treated as bipartisan on Capitol Hill. Both Democrats and Republicans have called on the White House to restrict its concessions to Iran as much as possible in the negotiating process, and have disagreed only over the timing of the new sanctions language, which would ruthlessly target Iran's remaining oil exports and access to foreign exchange reserves.
Corker's comments come just after a meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House, and as a delegation of US diplomats is in transit to Switzerland, where they will try and cut an interim agreement with Iran that would include limited sanctions relief.
Obama personally lobbied key members of the Senate on Tuesday not to move forward with new sanctions legislation against Iran, just a day before the third round of negotiations were set to begin in Geneva
The meeting came shortly after Iranian parliamentarians warned that, should new sanctions proceed through the US Congress, Iran would pull its diplomats from the negotiating table.
The long, detailed White House meeting focused on the technicalities of the prospective “first step” deal being forged in Switzerland between Iran and the P5+1 – the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Germany – and not on rising tensions between the White House and Israel’s government over how best to proceed.
“The president underscored that, in the absence of a first step, Iran will continue to make progress on its nuclear program by increasing its enrichment capacity, continuing to grow its stockpile of enriched uranium, installing advanced centrifuges, and making progress on the plutonium track,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing.
In a prepared statement released after the meeting, the White House said that the discussion, which lasted over two hours, had included a lengthy explanation by the president as to why a six-month interim agreement – temporarily halting key aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for marginal sanctions relief – was in the US’s best national security interests.
“The president noted that the relief we are considering as part of a first step would be limited, temporary and reversible, and emphasized that we will continue to enforce sanctions during the six-month period,” the statement read.
“The president is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and firmly believes that it would be preferable to do so peacefully,” it continued.
“Therefore, he has a responsibility to pursue the ongoing diplomatic negotiations before pursuing other alternatives.”
According to the statement, Obama “dispelled the rumors that Iran would receive $40 billion or $50b. in relief, noting those reports are inaccurate” – a reference to figures first floated by Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz last week.
Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, told CNN on Tuesday the amount of Iranian assets that would be unfrozen under the deal with Iran would be less than $10 billion.
"We're talking about a modest amount of money," she said. 
Obama injected a note of caution on the prospect of closing a deal with Iran, telling a Wall Street Journal forum on Tuesday that, "We don't know if we'll be able to close a deal with Iran this week or next week."
After meeting with the president, Senator Corker implied that any new legislative push was on hold for the time being.
“Let’s face it,” Corker said to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “At the end of the day, there aren’t going to be new sanctions put in place” before Geneva. And “Senator [Harry] Reid has filled the tree,” he said, describing the Senate majority leader’s ability to prevent new amendments from getting floor time for consideration.
“Congress has no say on the easing of sanctions,” Corker added. “The president has full waiver authority.”
Senator Mark Kirk announced Tuesday evening that he will pursue an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act with fellow Republicans this week that would include the sanctions language, bucking the White House. But it's unclear whether Reid will allow that to happen.
One source familiar with the legislation told The Jerusalem Post that if negotiators clinched an interim deal this weekend, progress on the new sanctions bill was “unlikely” before December of this year – if at all.
But that has not stopped lawmakers in both chambers from urging the Obama administration to toughen the deal going into talks on Wednesday.
A bipartisan group of senators, many of whom met with the president on Tuesday, wrote to US Secretary of State John Kerry that the deal under consideration in Geneva allowed up to $10b.
in sanctions relief – too high a price for too few concessions, they asserted.
“While the interim agreement may suggest that Iran could be willing to temporarily slow its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, it could also allow Iran to continue making some progress toward that end under the cover of negotiations,” the senators wrote. “This does not give us confidence that Iran is prepared to abandon unambiguously its nuclear weapons pursuit altogether, as it must.”
The group included senators Robert Menendez, John McCain, Bob Casey and Charles Schumer, among others.
At the House of Representatives – which already passed its version of the sanctions bill last summer – congressmen Ed Royce (R-California), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel (D-New York), ranking member of the committee, sent a letter to the president on Tuesday cautioning against a deal that would allow Iran to continue progressing in its nuclear program in any capacity.
“Mr. President, the United States cannot allow Iran to continue to advance toward a nuclear weapons capability while at the same time providing relief from the sanctions pressure we worked so hard to build, and the Administration has worked to enforce,” the congressmen wrote.
In his interview with CNN, Corker said the administration did not see the deal as a “fait accompli” going into talks, describing the interim agreement as far from certain.
Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman flew to Geneva on Tuesday to lead the US negotiating team.
Her first meeting on Wednesday will be with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton, the State Department said.
Responding to concerns aired repeatedly and publicly by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that the Geneva deal is shaping up poorly for Israel, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that it was his “prerogative” to express his opinion as negotiations continued.
“I think you can both respect concerns and also disagree with them,” Psaki said. “I certainly don’t refute the notion that there’s a difference of opinion....
One of the reasons we’re pursuing this is because of Israel’s security.”
Psaki said that US diplomats entering the third round of talks were “hopeful about the path forward.”
“There’s either a diplomatic path, or a path toward aggression.
We continue to believe that,” she said. “If this does not work, we will be leading the charge for more sanctions.”
Meanwhile, in Tehran, Iranian Jews demonstrated Tuesday outside a United Nations facility in support of Iran’s declared right to peaceful nuclear energy, as protected by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.
“Jews from all Iranian Jewish communities, especially from Tehran, will take part in this gathering to show their solidarity with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s stances in the recent talks, especially the issues proposed to Group 5+1,” said Siamak Marreh Sedq, representative of the Jewish minority in Iran’s Parliament, in announcing the rally.
The Post could not confirm attendance at the rally.
The US notes that the NPT protects the right of all nations to peaceful nuclear power, but it objects to Iran’s claim that the treaty protects Tehran’s right to enrich uranium. Reuters contributed to this report.