(CNSNews.com) – A senior State Department official testifying on Capitol Hill Tuesday cautioned against congressional measures in response to Iran’s ballistic missile launches that would impact on the nuclear deal or give the regime “any excuse to walk away from table.”
But senators from both parties expressed frustration, suggesting the administration was walking on “eggshells” in response to Iran’s provocative behavior since the nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was concluded last July.
Republican lawmakers are pursuing new legislation sanctioning Iran for a series of missile launches since last fall, but Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the administration believes it has “both multilaterally and unilaterally, the tools necessary to attack that missile program.”
The administration has sanctioned several entities linked to the missile program in response to the recent launches, he noted.
“In regard to potential legislation,” Shannon said, “our only concern about this legislation is that it not interfere with JCPOA implementation, or give Iran any excuse to walk away from the table.”
Several senators jumped on those words.
“I’m not going to allow Iran to determine what is in compliance with the JCPOA,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member.
“Your statement that we don’t want to give Iran a reason – Iran has used interpretations that are far beyond any reasonable coverage of what’s in the JCPOA,” added Cardin, cautioning against using “an Iranian standard” of what is in the agreement.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of four Senate Democrats who voted against the JCPOA, voiced concern about “statements that suggest that we have to watch what we do because we don’t want to have Iran walk away from the table.”
He said Secretary of State John Kerry and others had assured the committee that “we were free to pursue all other actions of the Iranians that are against the national interests and security of the United States, outside of the nuclear portfolio.”
“I see all these cautionary remarks all the time, I see all these caveats,” he said. “I don’t understand them.”
Menendez listed troubling Iranian behavior in the region, including the missile launches, “acts of aggression designed to destabilize our allies,” and “its illegal detention and despicable humiliation of American sailors.”
“What bothers me is that we seem to create a permissive environment … in which we are treading on eggshells about doing anything else” in response to Iran’s conduct, he said.
The U.S. appears to have been “frozen” by concerns about what Iran might do, Menendez said. Addressing the chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), he said he hoped the committee for its part would not be “frozen,” but would act, both in pursuing missile sanctions but also in reauthorizing the Iran Sanctions Act.
(The Iran Sanctions Act expires late this year and the administration has advised against its early reauthorization. When a senator asked Kerry last February if he would welcome the step immediately, he said there was no “need to rush,” as the legislation could be passed “in about ten minutes.”)
Corker told Shannon that senators opposed to the JCPOA had from the outset been “concerned that we were giving away leverage – that on the front end, Iran would get all of this relief, and then we would be on the eggshells.”
“Then all of a sudden the administration would be concerned – if we push back, they might walk away, since they got everything they wanted on the front end,” he said.
Shannon said it has not been his intention to say that the U.S. was “walking on eggshells with the Iranians” or “pulling punches.”
“We just want to make sure that as Iran meets its [JCPOA] commitments, we meet our commitments,” he said.
As far as Iran’s behavior in the region, Shannon added, “we are concerned by it, we are appalled in some instances by it, but we are working actively to push back on it and to stop it where we can.”
The Iran Ballistic Missile Sanctions Act, introduced by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), would impose new sanctions against persons who knowingly aid the missile program; against entities controlled or owned at least 25 percent by Iranian ballistic missile organizations; and against persons involved in sectors of the Iranian economy that support the missile program.
Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kans.) has introduced companion legislation in the House.