Democratic U.S. Senator Robert Menendez said Tuesday that he would hold off on pushing his bill to impose additional sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program until after March 24, an interim deadline in the international talks with Tehran.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress not to vote on additional sanctions, sought by many Republican lawmakers. He has said such a vote could jeopardize the negotiations with Iran at a critical juncture.
Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said he was proud to lead bipartisan efforts on extra sanctions to make clear that Iran would face consequences if the talks failed. He is the co-sponsor, with Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, of the Nuclear Free Iran Act.
Menendez, however, surprised many with the announcement he made at Tuesday’s Senate Banking Committee hearing on Iran.
“Many of my Democratic colleagues and I have sent a letter to the president," he said, "telling him that we will not support passage of the Kirk-Menendez amendment on the Senate floor, until after March 24th, and only if there is no political framework agreement, because, as the letter states, we remain hopeful that diplomacy will succeed in reversing Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon capability.”
Menendez said he was still skeptical that Iran truly wanted to reach a deal.
Also at the hearing, Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Menendez's announcement was a game-changer.
“If we want to speak with one voice and show strength to Iran, it is likely that we are not going to vote on the Senate floor on sanctions until after March 24th,” he said.
Speaking for the Obama administration, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken again made a strong appeal for Congress to hold off on any planned votes on additional sanctions. Blinken said he knew Congress’ intentions were good, but that the consequences of a vote now could be disastrous.
“It is our considered judgment and strongly held view that new sanctions at this time are unnecessary and, far from enhancing the prospect of negotiations, risk fatally undermining our diplomacy, making a deal less likely and unraveling the sanctions regime so many in this body have worked so hard to establish,” he said.
Blinken said a vote on additional sanctions could make U.S. allies think that Washington is not serious about reaching an agreement, and give hard-liners in Iran an excuse to pull out of the talks.
Obama has threatened to veto any congressional bill imposing more sanctions on Iran now, and even though Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate, they would need significant Democratic support to override a veto.
For 18 months, the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China have been negotiating with Iran to have that country demonstrate that it is not working toward developing nuclear weapons. All the parties have agreed to step up their efforts to reach a political agreement by the end of March, with technical details to be worked out by July 1.