After Iran Nuclear Talks Extended, Lawmakers Split Over New, Tougher Sanctions

By Patrick Goodenough | November 24, 2014 | 11:58pm EST

Delegations led by Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, Russia, France, China, Germany and Iran, along with former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, center, during their nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Nov. 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Joe Klamar, Pool)

( – As reaction poured in from Capitol Hill to news that talks on Iran’s nuclear program have been extended again, the gulf between lawmakers wanting to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran and those agreeing with the administration that threatening more sanctions would be a bad idea looked wider than ever.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other representatives of the P5+1 group agreed with the Iranians in Vienna to extend the talks for a further seven months, after failing to reach a final agreement by Monday’s deadline.

Kerry appealed for Congress’ “support for this extension and for continued talks,” promising to continue to consult closely.

But for many lawmakers, the second deadline to come and go without an agreement was enough to renew calls for new sanctions legislation.

Bilateral legislation proposed a year ago envisaged holding the threat of tougher economic measures over Tehran – rather than actually imposing them – to prod it towards a deal. Despite the delayed trigger mechanism the administration strongly opposed the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act and threatened to veto it if passed.

That bill’s co-author, outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), said Monday he would work with senators from both parties in the weeks ahead “to ensure that Iran comprehends that we will not ever permit it to become a threshold nuclear state.”

“The cycle of negotiations, followed by an extension, coupled with sanctions relief for Iran has not succeeded,” Menendez said. “I continue to believe that the two-track approach of diplomacy and economic pressure that brought Iran to the negotiating table is also the best path forward to achieve a breakthrough.”

The bill’s other co-author, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), said it was now “critical that Congress enacts sanctions that give Iran’s mullahs no choice but to dismantle their illicit nuclear program.”

The aim of the talks is for the international community to have confidence that Iran’s nuclear energy program cannot be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (AP photo)

Negotiators have intentionally kept silent on the details of the bargaining, but Iranian President Hasan Rouhani said on state television Monday night that Iran’s two main objectives in the talks were to preserve its nuclear program, including domestic uranium enrichment; and to have sanctions removed.

Lawmakers supporting new pressure on Tehran included the GOP’s third-ranking senator, Senate Republican Conference chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who called for action on the Menendez-Kirk legislation; and the party’s fourth-ranking senator, Republican Policy Committee chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who said the president “should immediately call on Congress to impose increased sanctions on Iran before the end of the year.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who will succeed Menendez as chairman in January, said “Congress must have the opportunity to weigh in before implementation of any final agreement and begin preparing alternatives, including tougher sanctions, should negotiations fail.”

'Trying to save face from yet another foreign policy failure.'

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) called for immediate tighter sanctions, Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) said to ensure that Iran is negotiating in good faith, “all options must be on the table, including tough sanctions that make the regime listen,” and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Nebr.) expressed hope that the Senate would “strengthen the hands of our negotiators with additional sanctions next year.”

“[T]his latest extension of talks should be coupled with increased sanctions and a requirement that any final deal between Iran and the United States be sent to Congress for approval,” said Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) in a joint statement.

They warned of a repeat of the mistakes made with North Korea, which began with a small, monitored nuclear energy program, but ended up testing nuclear weapons.

Secretary of State John Kerry leaves the closed-door nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna on Friday, Nov. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

California Democrat Sen. Brad Sherman also threw his weight behind “tough” and immediate” sanctions.

In the House, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said the seven-month extension of talks “should be used to tighten the economic vice on Tehran,” while Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) called for “crippling” new sanctions, accusing the administration of continuing the talks in a bid “to save face from yet another foreign policy failure.”

“With the Republicans in control of both the House and Senate come January, it’s time that we roll up our sleeves and get to work to pass new sanctions on the Iranian regime,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, “Instead of giving Iran more flexibility, we should be holding this regime accountable for the threat it poses to the region and our allies.”

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said the new Congress should impose new sanctions in January, charging that the talks extension showed “the complete failure of Obama’s foreign policy.”

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hasan Rouhani. (Photo: Office of the Supreme Leader)

'Hardliners' in Congress and 'hardliners' in Tehran

However several senior Democrats cautioned against measures which they said could jeopardize the talks.

“Having Congress impose new sanctions on Iran or place unworkable timetables and conditions on negotiators now would be grossly counterproductive, potentially shattering the international coalition formed to isolate Iran and escalating toward war,” said Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), outgoing chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

“I urge my colleagues in Washington to be patient, carefully evaluate the progress achieved thus far and provide U.S. negotiators the time and space they need to succeed,” said outgoing Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), outgoing chairmen of the Armed Services and Environment and Public Works committees respectively, supported the administration’s position that the sanctions already in place are robust.

“Instead of rushing to declare the talks a failure – or taking actions to derail them altogether – my colleagues in Congress should do everything possible to support the continuation of negotiations,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), while Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said enforcing tougher sanctions would be “a slap in the face to a year’s worth of hard fought and honest negotiations by U.S. diplomats.”

“Too many hardline members and members-elect are already opposing a deal, emboldening hardliners in Iran,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). “What the hardliners do not say, is that failure to reach a deal clears the path to war.”

“Congress must not undermine our negotiators with unwise legislative actions,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.).

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said it was important that the U.S. not be responsible for a breakdown in the talks, “which is why I believe it would be unwise for Congress to pass new sanctions legislation at this time.”

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