There is little faith on Capitol Hill that the administration's negotiations with Iran will thwart its nuclear-weapons objectives — but there also appears to be little appetite to interfere.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee members, many of whom were pushing legislation earlier this year to impose additional sanctions on Iran if nuclear talks fail, laid out several misgivings with the state of negotiations Tuesday. But the panel's leaders stopped short of threatening to meddle with legislation to rein in the administration's leeway to waive sanctions or to dictate the terms of a deal with Iran. An initial six-month negotiating window with Iran was extended by four months July 18.
Instead, at a hearing on the state of negotiations with State and Treasury department officials, committee members expressed frustration with the four-month extension to continue negotiating with Iran, distrust in Iran's commitment to upending its path to nuclear weapons, and concerns about the administration's tactics.
Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who led the most recent Iran sanctions legislative effort, questioned how Iran's recent detention of three American journalists can be tolerated at the negotiating table. He also made clear that given Iran's track record, he expects strict monitoring of people, places, and documents — beyond International Atomic Energy Agency standards. He wants to chart Iran's development to date and to verify Iran is not progressing on any nuclear-weapons program, if a deal is reached.
"What options are on the table for addressing the possible military dimensions of Iran's program?" Menendez asked. "Assuming a good deal that we could all embrace, what is going to be critical after 20 years of deception is the monitoring and verification regime."
Menendez also stressed that he does not trust Tehran and was skeptical that much would change during the extended timeline for negotiations.
"I will not support another extension of negotiations," he said referring to the new Nov. 24 deadline. "At that point, Iran will have exhausted its opportunities to put real concessions on the table and I will be prepared to move forward with additional sanctions."
Sen. Bob Corker, the panel's ranking member, made plain he has concerns with the administration's methods. He demanded (but was unable to get) assurances from the administration that the Nov. 24 negotiating window would be held as a firm deadline to either extract a deal or to cut off talks with Iran and resume sanctions that have been eased. He also asked for a guarantee that the administration would come back to Congress if it decided to further suspend certain sanctions against Iran at that time.
But Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of State for political affairs, only promised to keep Congress informed throughout the process. She noted that the president has to come to Congress in order to lift sanctions, but that Congress would have to act in order to take away the president's power to suspend or waive them.
"Senator, the United States Congress and the United States Senate has oversight authority, has legislative authority. You are free to decide what action you think is appropriate for any executive branch decisions by any administration."
Corker voiced his frustration, saying a promise of a conversation before the administration acts unilaterally is not the same thing as coming to Congress for consent, but he gave no indication he would push it further.
"The world understands that is a zero commitment," he said. "The goalposts keep moving and I think you can continue this "¦ as evidence of why so many of us have the concerns we have."