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Senate Dems close in on Iran sanctions bill

It looks increasingly likely that any day now, Senate Dems will roll out a new proposal to impose new sanctions on Iran — in defiance of the White House’s request that they hold off, for fear that it will undermine the possibility of a long term deal curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

According to a Senate aide, the two Senators leading the charge for a new sanctions bill — Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk — are closing in on a proposal that would impose new sanctions but give the White House the flexibility it needs to defer the sanctions if a long term deal is within reach after the six month deadline on the temporary deal expires.

The aide tells me that the proposal being discussed would impose sanctions after the six month window, but would also give the President two additional 30 day periods if an agreement appears imminent and the administration wants more time to pursue a long term deal.

After that, the aide says, it’s likely the proposal will also include a mechanism enabling the president to suspend sanctions for additional 30-day periods, but only if certain benchmarks are met and if Iran is still in compliance with the agreement.

The details will matter: A lot will depend on what those benchmarks are, and on what the sanctions look like.

From the point of view of the White House, there’s good news and bad news in this proposal. The White House doesn’t want any vote on any sort of sanctions measure now, because it fears that it would give the Iranians, and the U.S.’s negotiating partners, reason to believe the U.S. is negotiating in bad faith. Secretary of State John Kerry said today that Iran already knows it will face renewed sanctions if the deal fails — whether or not the Senate votes now — and that any vote would hence be “gratuitous.”

The good news the White House might take from this proposal will probably be that even the more hawkish Senators appear to want to be seen granting the administration flexibility to make a long term deal work.

That matters, because the administration is still holding out hope of persuading Dems to back off entirely for now, and indeed, it appears that divisions among Senate Dems over whether to give the White House what it wants are deepening. While Menendez is pressing forward, other Democrats, such as Senator Tim Johnson, the chair of the Banking Committee, said today that he is inclined to hold off on a sanctions vote.

That means the pressure will now redouble on Harry Reid, who is caught between those in his conference who want sanctions action, and the administration, which doesn’t. The Senate Majority Leader had temporarily deferred the decision on sanctions over to the Committee. Now that it is unlikely to act, it will fall to Reid to decide whether the Menendez-Kirk bill gets a full vote.

Reid is thought to want to give the White House the flexibility it wants, but the demands for a vote are going to get very loud. The administration will have to hope that Reid is willing to resist pressure from the hawks and their outside allies, who are not going to drop their push for a vote against Iran anytime soon, even if the White House continues to assert that it would kill hopes for a long term diplomatic breakthrough.