Secretary of State John Kerry will have his hands full Wednesday when he meets behind closed doors with the Senate Banking Committee, whose members are skeptical of the administration’s request they delay new sanctions against Iran.
Kerry returned to Washington this week following a tour around the world that culminated with a surprise stop in Geneva, where he worked unsuccessfully to finalize an interim deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries, which include the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany. The two sides were “extremely close” to a deal, Kerry said afterward, and have agreed to meet again in Geneva later this month.
Back in Washington, Congress is preparing a new round of sanctions against Iran, and Kerry must convince senators from both parties to hold off on new legislation for now. The secretary will meet in a secure location Wednesday with the Senate Banking Committee to make his case. Several senators on that committee told The Daily Beast on Tuesday it will be a tough sell.
“The American people do not want a march to war,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters, urging lawmakers not to thwart the delicate ongoing diplomacy.
“What we are asking for right now is a pause, a temporary pause in sanctions,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday, previewing Kerry’s meeting with the committee. “The secretary will be clear that putting new sanctions in place would be a mistake.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), a banking committee member who also chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he disagrees. New sanctions are needed to strengthen the administration’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Iran, he said.
“It would make it very clear what the Congress’s intent is, and at the same time it would give the negotiators the opportunity to say, ‘Here’s what is waiting.’ From my perspective, that’s both an incentive and an insurance policy,” Menendez said.
The decision on whether to proceed with sanctions before the next round of negotiations is up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD), Menendez said.
Johnson told The Daily Beast he has not made up his mind about when the committee will start working on the new sanctions legislation.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’m waiting for the advice from the leader and the president.”
Once the work begins, the sanctions bill is almost sure to pass. The House passed a new sanctions measure in July by a vote of 400-20.
In late 2011, when the administration sought to shelve a previous sanctions bill up for consideration in the Senate, the lawmakers struck back and passed the bill by a vote of 100-0.
Menendez said the banking committee was the correct venue for the new sanctions measure, rather than the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is managed by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Work on that bill could start next month.
“If the committee moves through regular order, it would be desirable,” Menendez said. “We’d have a clear message of where we want to go on sanctions, and it would be pending as the administration pursues its next round of negotiations.”
His counterpart of the foreign relations committee, ranking Republican Bob Corker (R-TN), is also a banking committee member. Corker supports the idea of more sanctions but argues they wouldn’t go into effect soon enough. He told The Daily Beast last week he is considering his own legislation to take away some of the administration’s power to waive sanctions now in place.
“The sanctions that we’re contemplating wouldn’t kick in for three to six months, and they are interesting, but the critical period of time is right now,” Corker told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “My bigger concern is that we’re very worried that the administration is going to deal away our leverage, end up with a partial deal that is exactly the same route we took with North Korea.”
Kerry will have a chance to convince lawmakers to delay their sanctions drive, but he will also confront a Congress that has lost faith in the administration’s promises on foreign policy since the flawed drive to seek congressional approval for a strike on Syria, a plan the president scuttled at the last minute.
“This meeting tomorrow with Kerry is one that’s going to be very impactful and important, and I’m reserving judgment until meeting with him,” Corker said.