A bipartisan group of 26 senators introduced legislation Thursday that threatened new sanctions against Iran, dismissing warnings from the White House that such a move could scuttle efforts to peacefully resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.
The bill, called the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, drew a rebuke from the Obama administration and highlighted deep divisions among Senate Democrats on whether to heap new pressures on Tehran’s government while sensitive diplomacy is underway.
Hours after the bill’s introduction, a separate group of senior Democrats revealed in a letter that U.S. intelligence agencies had cautioned lawmakers in private briefings about the consequences of new sanctions. A Dec. 10 intelligence assessment had concluded that new punitive measures would “undermine the prospects for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran,” according to the letter, signed by 10 Democrats.
The escalation in the fight over sanctions comes less than four weeks after diplomats from Iran and six world powers signed a historic accord in Geneva that temporarily freezes key parts of Tehran’s nuclear program in return for short-term relief from some economic sanctions. Negotiators set a six-month deadline for hammering out a permanent treaty that would set strict limits on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
The measure introduced Thursday, if approved, would impose harsh new sanctions on Iran’s petroleum industry while also threatening U.S. allies and partners with financial restrictions unless they sharply curtail trade with Iran. The sanctions would go into effect if Iran violated the terms of the temporary accord reached last month or if it failed to reach a permanent agreement with world powers in a timely manner.
Sponsors of the bill said it would increase U.S. leverage as the nation’s diplomats continue to work toward a permanent deal. But White House officials had pushed hard to delay the bill’s introduction, saying that even the threat of new sanctions could cause the fragile negotiations to collapse.
THE DEAL Iran and six major powers, including the United States, reached a six-month deal on Nov. 24 to freeze key parts of Iran's nuclear program in exchange for temporary relief from some sanctions. Officials say the deal will make it virtually impossible for Tehran to build a nuclear weapon without being detected.
THE HOPE U.S. officials say this deal will increase the security of U.S. allies in the region and leads to a more comprehensive deal when this one expires.
THE CRITICISM Some critics say negotiators should have pushed for far deeper concessions from Iran. Israel has expressed worry that the interim deal, which lets Iran continue low-level uranium enrichment, could become permanent.
THE BILLS A Senate bill proposes tough new sanctions if Iran violates the temporary deal; if it were allowed to come to a vote and passed, it would have to be reconciled with a harsher measure the House passed this summer and even then would probably face a veto. White House officials are worried that even the threat of new sanctions could derail the deal.
Iran has warned that any additional U.S. sanctions during the ongoing nuclear talks could doom chances for a deal. Iran’s diplomatic team briefly walked away from a round of technical negotiations last week after the Obama administration took action to enforce existing sanctions against the Islamic republic.
“We have made very clear to them that we do not believe now is the time to pass any additional, new sanctions through Congress,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters. “We don’t think it will be enacted; we certainly don’t think it should be enacted.”
A key Republican sponsor of the bill, Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.), said the threat of new sanctions was needed to “protect the American people from Iranian deception.”
“The American people rightfully distrust Iran’s true intentions, and they deserve an insurance policy to defend against Iranian deception during negotiations,” Kirk said.
The letter from the 10 Senate Democrats urged Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) not to allow the measure to come up for a vote.
“We believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail,” said the letter, whose signatories included Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.).
The bill’s prospects appear uncertain at best. Even if Reid allows the bill to come to the floor and it passes, it would have to be reconciled with a far harsher House version passed in the summer. Even if those hurdles were cleared, the legislation would still be likely to face a White House veto.
“The president has made clear that if it did come to a vote and passed, he’d veto it,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity about relations with Congress.
“The goal should be for the negotiations to succeed. This would make that far less likely,” the official added.
Anne Gearan contributed to this report.