Congressional support for a new round of sanctions against the Iranian government is growing, with a nearly filibuster-proof majority of senators willing to approve them, according to senior Senate aides.
There are no plans for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to allow a vote on the proposal in the near future, the aides said, but the growing support may further complicate efforts by the Obama administration and other world powers to broker a deal to reduce Iran's nuclear capabilities.
On Friday, Iran's top nuclear envoy signaled that the text of an initial agreement was being circulated among the negotiating countries for further approval. The move comes almost two months after Iran, the U.S. and five other countries agreed to freeze key parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for temporary relief on some economic sanctions.
Formalization of the deal had awaited agreement on verification mechanisms and other issues that have been under discussion with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. U.S. officials have said they expected the agreement to go into effect by mid-January.
But congressional support for imposing more sanctions never waned, and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) later introduced a plan to impose a new round of sanctions that would be applied if Iran backed away from an agreement. The sanctions would put further restrictions on Iran's fuel purchases and certain sectors of the country's economy.
Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Kirk introduced the proposal late last year with 25 co-sponsors. On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sens. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) joined a growing list of co-sponsors that numbered at least 59 by Friday afternoon, according to official Senate records of pending legislation. Another Senate aide familiar with the talks said that a less formal tally has support among senators “in the mid-70s.”
Senate procedural rules require at least 60 votes to help end debate on legislation.
In a Washington Post-oped Friday, Menendez wrote that a diplomatic agreement that ends Iran’s nuclear weapons program remains his preferred result, but “backing up this achievement by taking out a diplomatic insurance policy is an act of reasonable pragmatism.”
Reid has avoided taking a public position on the issue and has not signaled privately or publicly whether a vote will be permitted. For weeks he has dodged questions about the topic, usually telling reporters to "check with Menendez on that."
Meanwhile, in Geneva, Abbas Araghchi, Iran's top nuclear envoy, told the official IRNA news agency Friday that world powers and the Iranian government would probably respond within two days on whether they accept the terms of the interim agreement that maps out a six-month plan to be implemented while diplomats continue negotiating the final deal.
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.