Congress didn’t exactly sound the trumpets and roll out the red carpet for President Barack Obama’s fragile interim deal with Iran — but it’s increasingly clear that lawmakers don’t want to blow it up with new sanctions, either.
Instead, wary members seem set to adopt the same approach Obama has taken to Iran’s nuclear commitments — in the words of Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”
“The administration has gotten what it wants: Space for negotiations. And it will continue to get what it wants: Space. But not without consequences or repercussions if Iran breaks faith,” a top Democratic aide close to the process told Yahoo News.
Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appeared to put on the brakes on Monday when he reversed course on his previously strong message of support for toughening economic sanctions on Iran.
“The Senate must be prepared to move forward with a new bipartisan Iran sanctions bill, when the Senate returns after Thanksgiving recess. And I am committed to do so,” Reid had said Thursday. The wily Nevada lawmaker had notably endorsed the idea of new sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sector.
Come Monday, Reid sounded a lot more cautious.
“I said when we come back, we will take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions,” he told NPR’s Diane Rehm.
Reid said he would task Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., with examining the interim deal announced late Saturday.
“They will study this, they will hold hearings if necessary, and if we need work on this, if we need stronger sanctions, I am sure we will do that,” Reid said. “We will move forward appropriately.”
What would “appropriately” look like? Some congressional Republicans expressed profound skepticism that Reid would do anything the White House opposes, with one saying that would amount to a “black eye” for an already weakened president.
“We do not think there should be new sanctions passed during the course of the negotiations,” an administration official told reporters on a conference call Monday.
If Iran refuses to implement any part of the interim deal, “it’s not going to be difficult to pass sanctions,” the official said. “So there’s no urgency to get a piece of legislation passed now … that hammer can drop at a moment’s notice.”
But other sources inside Congress and the administration played down prospects that lawmakers would do nothing. It’s virtually a foregone conclusion that Secretary of State John Kerry and other senior diplomats will be called to justify the arrangement and provide frequent updates on Iranian compliance.
And legislation is far from ruled out. Congress is looking at options, such as new sanctions that don’t go into effect until the interim agreement’s six-month lifespan slips by without a comprehensive deal — or unless Iran fails to implement any key aspect of the deal.
That approach appears to have found favor with the powerful American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which pressed Congress to adopt new sanctions “so that Iran will face immediate consequences should it renege on its commitments or refuse to negotiate an acceptable final agreement.”
To make things a bit easier on the White House, new punitive measures also could come with potent presidential “waiver” powers that would let Obama set them aside under some circumstances. And lawmakers could agree to hold off on sanctions in return for frequent, formal updates from the administration on Iran’s compliance with some as yet undefined benchmarks.
“I don’t really see a way where nothing happens,” said the anonymous Democratic aide. “Congress will hope for the best but prepare for the worst, but we will not detonate — maybe an unfortunate choice of words — detonate the negotiations.”
That note of caution also echoed through the first formal public reaction from Menendez, who has not hesitated to call out the administration for being insufficiently tough on Iran.
"I expect that the forthcoming sanctions legislation to be considered by the Senate will provide for a six-month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran, but will at the same time be immediately available should the talks falter or Iran fail to implement or breach the interim agreement,” he said.
(Obama likes to claim credit for toughening sanctions on Iran, but back on Dec. 1, 2011, Menendez sharply scolded the administration for its “outrageous” attempts to water down a measure aimed at tightening the economic vise on Iran. “You have rebuffed it every step of the way,” Menendez scolded top diplomat Wendy Sherman, Obama’s point person on the Iran dossier. The legislation passed and Obama signed it into law.)
“I think you'll have sanctions coming out in the next couple of weeks, actually, that will be bipartisan and tie the sanctions to the endgame,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R.-S.C., told CNN.
On the House side, plenty of lawmakers have called for fresh legislation — but Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s reaction to news of the deal was a measured pledge to bring “healthy skepticism and hard questions” to oversight of the accord. Boehner, who controls the House schedule, made no mention of new sanctions.
If somehow the delicate balancing act fails, “the president obviously has a possibility of a veto,” Kerry told reporters when the deal was announced.
“But I don’t think it should come to that. We don’t want it to come to that,” he added. “I believe Congress will see the wisdom of pursuing this.”