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January 23, 2014

Support Slipping for Iran Sanctions in US Senate

by Michael Bowman

More Democratic senators are quietly signaling their opposition to a bill that spells out new sanctions against Iran if negotiations to limit the country’s nuclear program do not yield a final accord. 

The bill retains bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, but passage is seen as increasingly unlikely in the Democratic-led Senate amid an intense lobbying effort by the Obama administration to hold off on sanctions while international negotiations proceed.  

Senators Patty Murray and Elizabeth Warren are the latest Democrats to announce their opposition to the Iran sanctions bill currently before Congress. 

In a letter to constituents in Washington state, Murray said “the administration should be given time to negotiate a strong verifiable comprehensive agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program.  At the same time, she pledged to work “to swiftly enact sanctions” if the talks ultimately fail.

Similarly, a spokeswoman for Warren says the Massachusetts senator “does not support imposing additional sanctions through new legislation while diplomatic efforts to achieve a long-term agreement are ongoing.”

The sanctions bill has 16 Democratic co-sponsors, near-unanimous support among Republicans, and the backing of politically potent pro-Israeli U.S. lobbying groups.  But 11 Senate committee chairs, including Murray, currently oppose the bill. 

Among Democrats who signed on to the measure late last year, some have grown less vocal in their defense and promotion of the measure in recent weeks.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has neither explicitly promised a vote on the bill, nor ruled it out.

Congressional expert William Galston of the Brookings Institution says pressure from President Barack Obama appears to be swaying a growing number of Democratic lawmakers.

“The White House is determined to prevent this from happening," he said. "The administration believes in the marrow of its bones that the executive branch is the lead negotiator in the matter and that it deserves a chance to conduct its own foreign policy."

Iran says any new sanctions would violate last year’s interim nuclear accord and spell the end of negotiations.

The White House has promised a presidential veto of any sanctions Congress may pass before negotiations run their course. 

Polls show the American people wary of Iran’s nuclear intentions but in no way eager for war, giving the administration what Galston calls “cards to play” with Congress while it pursues a high-risk, high reward diplomatic initiative.  He adds, however, that bipartisan backing for sanctions will be overwhelming if negotiations with Iran fail.