Iran Agreement’s Unsettled Timetable Adds to Tensions in Congress

US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) leaves after delivering a speech during a press conference at the CICG (Centre International de Conferences Geneve) after talks over Iran's nuclear programme in Geneva on November 24, 2013. World powers on November 24 agreed a landmark deal with Iran halting parts of its nuclear programme in what US President Barack Obama called 'an important first step'. According to details of the accord agreed in Geneva provided by the White House, Iran has committed to halt uranium enrichment above purities of five percent.
National Journal
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Elahe Izad and Stacy Kaper
Nov. 25, 2013, 2:48 p.m.

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.


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