Confusion over the actual start date of an interim agreement with Iran is complicating lawmakers' attempts to police negotiations over the country's nuclear program.
Policy leaders are still combing through the details of the accord struck with Iran over the weekend that would pause its nuclear enrichment program and provide some sanctions-relief for six months while negotiators continue hammering out a comprehensive agreement. The terms of the agreement will not kick in until the technical details are finalized, though the exact time-frame should be available in the coming weeks, according to a senior administration official.
In the meantime, lawmakers who want to hold Iran accountable without giving leeway to the administration are running into challenges crafting new sanctions legislation because plans for implementing the agreement with Iran have not been ironed out.
"One thing percolating right now that might throw a wrench into everything is there is not actually a deal yet," said a congressional aide. "That agreement in Geneva was an agreement in principle with no plan of action on how to implement it. That changes the political calculus a lot."
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said it's unlikely that any kind of sanctions package would kick in within six months. "It's difficult to get a sanctions regime up and running faster than that anyway," the aide said.
Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and other lawmakers are working on legislation that would trigger mandatory fail-safe sanctions if Iran breaks the agreement during the six-month period or if the country's nuclear infrastructure is not being dismantled by the end of it.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.—another reliable pro-Israel ally and a member of Senate leadership—was immediately out arguing that the "disproportionality" of the agreement increases the likelihood that Congress will pass additional sanctions.
But the politics do not fall neatly along party lines. The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry have been pressing lawmakers for months to sit tight on Iran and give room to the negotiations. (Kerry is expected to brief members of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over sanctions, when lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving break.)
Notably, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., warned against new sanctions, saying in a statement that they would "undermine" the interim deal. And Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., supports the interim deal and refrained from calling for additional sanctions for now.
All of which puts Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a tricky spot.
Last week, Reid said the Senate "must be prepared" to move forward with a new bipartisan bill in December. "I am committed to do so," he said.
Reid appeared to walk that line back a bit on Monday, saying on WAMU's The Diane Rehm Show that "we will take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions." He added that Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Foreign Relations Chairman Menendez could hold hearings if necessary.
"But we all have to acknowledge that it's an important first step," Reid added. "Is a first step good enough? We will take a look at that."
It is unclear how Reid will navigate the Iran sanctions issue, particularly given that he has members on both sides of the debate.
"Reid is sort of the self-master of slow-rolling members of Congress, including Democrats who want to do something that is against the president—in this case punishing Iran for its nuclear weapons program," said Danielle Pletka, a vice president with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "There will be very strong efforts to force a vote and to use any and all vehicles available, but ... the odds of there being a vehicle other than a [continuing resolution] at the end of the year are not very high."
Pressure is mounting from pro-Israel groups. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said Monday that the agreement "raises many concerns," and the group is calling on Congress to pass new sanctions "so that Iran will face immediate consequences" should the regime not live up to the interim agreement or refuse to negotiate on a final deal. That came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried the agreement as "cosmetic" and a "historic mistake."
"AIPAC has made this their No. 1 one issue for a long time," said Matthew Duss, a policy analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress. "They are just very influential and very good at getting their points out on the Hill. They have very strong relationships with congressional offices, and they have made this clear that this is their No. 1 issue."
Expect a number of lawmakers to withhold their positions until after recess ends. The Banking Committee, for example, is in wait-and-see mode.
Banking Chairman Johnson "wants to be fully briefed by Secretary Kerry on the details of the agreement and its implementation, and to consult with colleagues, before making decisions about any committee action on new Iran-related legislation," said spokesman Sean Oblack.
The Nuclear Iran Playbook
This article appears in the November 26, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.