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A top House Democrat said that the Senate should hold off on implementing new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program in order to give the Obama administration space to negotiate during the first phase agreement reached with Tehran on Sunday.
As part of the deal, the U.S. and its international partners committed to “[n]ot impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months” as long as Iran adheres to its end of the bargain. And while the White House has urged lawmakers to stand down for now, some Senators — led by Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) — want to go forward with new sanctions anyway.
But House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY), a hawkish lawmaker who has been supportive of sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program, thinks the Senate should wait.
“It seems to me the threat of sanctions could strengthen our negotiators’ hand,” Engel told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent. “But since they are negotiating, I don’t think it would be terrible if the Senate respected that and kept the sanctions ready to go if needed. I don’t think it would be unreasonable for the Senate to do that.”
Engel’s caution is significant because in July he co-sponsored a House passed Iran sanctions bill that some senators want to take up in the upper chamber. At that time, Engel said that more sanctions provided the best hope for a final deal with Iran. “I am of the opinion that it is only the sanctions that just might make, and I don’t say will make, because we don’t know what goes on in their thought process, that might make them decide that it is time to stop their nuclear program and cut a deal,” he said, adding, “I don’t think having hopeful, wishful thoughts about Rouhani does that at all.”
But it appears that the first phase agreement inked in Geneva last weekend has changed the New York Democrat’s mind. His comments to the Washington Post echo what he said on Sunday just hours after the P5+1 and Iran reached the deal. “The agreement is here and we have to make it work,” he said on CNN’s State of the Union. “I think it makes it very difficult to continue the sanctions.”
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said this week that Congress can always come back and pass more sanctions if the deal falls through. “If the Iranians don’t live up to their end of the bargain, we’ll move to new sanctions with Congress. But it’s necessary now to test diplomacy,” he said.
In his conversation with the Post, Engel agreed. “The sanctions can still be used as a club,” he said. ”I don’t know that it has to be passed on the floor. Maybe that’s the compromise: You keep them ready to go at a moment’s notice, and you give the administration some breathing room.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) had said that he would take up new sanctions legislation after the Thanksgiving break but indicated this week that the Senate will now just “study” the issue and “hold hearings if necessary.”
“It remains unclear how this will play out,” Sargent notes, adding, “but quotes such as those from Engel could help provide cover for Democrats. They can continue to play a kind of bad cop role, threatening to vote on sanctions at the six month mark if the deal doesn’t work out, or even at any point sooner, if Dems determine Iran is not living up to its end of the temporary bargain, particularly its promise to allow inspectors’ access to its nuke program. At the same time, by not holding the vote now, Dems can allow the administration the flexibility it wants to pursue a broader deal.”