News / USA

Congress Avoids Clash on Iran Sanctions But Road Ahead Uncertain

John Kerry testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dec. 10, 2013.
John Kerry testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dec. 10, 2013.
Congress appears poised to give the Barack Obama administration some early Christmas gifts as it finishes its work for the year.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate on Tuesday reached a budget compromise that, if passed by both bodies, would avert the threat of another government shutdown in early 2014. Meanwhile, a must-pass Pentagon spending bill put together in another Capitol Hill backroom omits new sanctions against Iran, which could torpedo the Nov. 24 nuclear agreement reached in Geneva.
Judging from comments in Congress this week, however, the Obama administration faces serious domestic hurdles to concluding a comprehensive agreement trading significant restraints on Iran’s nuclear program for lifting nuclear-related sanctions. The gap between what Iran and Congress might accept is wide.
Before leaving for the Middle East again to apply his seemingly endless energy to another intractable issue – Palestinian-Israeli peace – Secretary of State John Kerry gave a spirited defense of the Geneva deal to the House Foreign Relations Committee. The House voted last summer 400-20 to apply new sanctions against Iran, but no bill has been passed by the Senate.
Kerry argued that now is not the time for new sanctions against Iran, even with a delayed trigger.
“We’re asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and the space to do their jobs, and that includes asking you, while we negotiate, that you hold off imposing new sanctions,” he said. “Now, I’m not saying ‘never.’ I just told you a few minutes ago, if this doesn’t work, we're coming back and asking you for more. I'm just saying not right now.”
Under the terms of the Geneva accord, which has a six-month duration but can be renewed, the United States, the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany (P5+1) offered limited sanctions relief to Iran and promised not to pass any new nuclear-related sanctions while negotiations proceed on a comprehensive agreement. In return, Iran agreed to a series of temporary constraints, including suspending 20 percent enrichment of uranium, which is dangerously close to weapons grade. Iranian officials have warned that new U.S. sanctions – even with delayed implementation – would kill the November accord.
Kerry explained that it was not just an American decision to withhold new penalties against Iran and that unilateral Congressional action would undercut unprecedented multinational support for a deal. If “Congress goes its own way,” other members of the P5+1 might “get squirrely on the whole idea of sanctions” and not follow suit, he said. New sanctions could also “give the Iranians a public excuse to flout the agreement.”
“This is a very delicate diplomatic moment, and we have a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world faces today,” Kerry added. “We’re at one of those hinge points in history. One path could lead to an enduring resolution in international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program. The other path could lead to continued hostility and potentially to conflict.”
Both Democrats and Republicans on the House committee expressed skepticism about the agreement, which allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium to low levels – but not increase its stockpile of uranium gas – for the duration of the accord. There were also clear signs that the administration will have trouble selling a comprehensive deal that includes even a limited enrichment program – which is Iran’s bottom line.
Committee chairman Ed Royce, a Republican, said that in his view Iran “simply can’t be trusted with enrichment technology because verification efforts can never be foolproof with respect to their ability to get undetectable nuclear breakout.” 
The Obama administration has not yet defined its end game for the Iranian nuclear program but some hints emerged from Kerry’s testimony.
While Kerry said that uranium enrichment was not “locked in” to a final accord, he said in response to a question from Rep. Michael McCaul, that Iran might have a thousand or 500 centrifuges spinning as part of a comprehensive deal but under “severe restraints – a mutually-defined program with mutually-agreed parameters, consistent with practical needs.” Such needs would include medical research and fueling “a legitimate power program, which may be done in consortium with other people with intrusive knowledge of what’s going on.” Kerry said.

“So the answer is, at the end of this I can’t tell you they might not have some enrichment, but I can tell you to a certainty it will not be possible for them to be able to turn that into a weapons program without our knowing it so far in advance that all the options that are available to us today to stop it,” he said.
Iran currently has about 19,000 centrifuges installed, of which about 9,000 are operating. For it to be willing to scale back to only a thousand centrifuges would be a major concession from its point of view.
For now, skeptical congressmen lack a legislative vehicle to torpedo the Geneva accord.
Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat, on Tuesday released the text of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014 which they hammered out with the senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee while Congress was on Thanksgiving recess.
Included are provisions to deal with sexual harassment in the military, detainees at Guantanamo and missile defense. But the only mention of Iran is a provision to expand an annual assessment of Iran’s military to include examining Iran-backed “terrorist and criminal groups.” The bill also requires a report on U.S. military partnerships with Iran’s Arab rivals in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and authorizes integrated air and missile defense with GCC members.
Other avenues to passing sanctions are also closing. Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson said Tuesday his committee would not act on a sanctions bill this year. That leaves it up to Senate majority leader Harry Reid to decide whether to bypass committee action and allow a vote on the floor on a sanctions bill sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Democrat Robert Menendez,  and Republican Mark Kirk. With the White House lobbying so hard against it and Congress due to recess for the year on Friday, passage appears doubtful this week.
Still, the threat of more sanctions in the future will play a role as negotiations continue. Iranian officials were undoubtedly watching the hearing, Kerry told the House committee. “And [when it comes to more sanctions] they know you’re yearning to go do it.”

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: alex
December 12, 2013 12:56 PM
you are stupid government. Iran accepts monitoring, why do you want to enforce a new sanction.?!

by: Cranksy from: USA
December 12, 2013 12:49 PM
Sanctions cause ONLY collateral damage.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs