Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday urged Congress against passing any new Iran sanctions bill, arguing that it could break up the international coalition on Iran and suggesting that it would violate the terms of the recent nuclear deal, thus giving the Iranians “public excuse to flout the agreement.”
“We’re asking you to give your 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,” Kerry told members of the House Foreign Relations Committee. “I’m not saying never. … I’m just saying not right now.”
Kerry explained that the current negotiations between the P5+1 — the U.S., U.K, France, China, Russia and Germany — and Iran are potentially a historic opportunity to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis peacefully and that the process is a delicate one. He told lawmakers that Congress could easily pass a new sanctions bill on Iran in one week, if necessary. “They know that if this fails sanctions will be increased. We’ve said it a hundred times. And you all have said it a hundred times and they know you’re yearning to go do it,” Kerry said. “But you don’t need to do it. It is actually gratuitous in the context of this situation.”
In the deal reached last month in Geneva, the P5+1 committed to, according to the text of the deal, “[n]ot impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months, if Iran abides by its commitments under this deal, to the extent permissible within their political systems.” While the Obama administration has appeared to avoid saying outright that Congress passing more sanctions on Iran during the six-month first step agreement would violate the accord, Kerry on Tuesday came up to that line. “We have an obligation to give these negotiations an opportunity to succeed and we can’t ask the rest of the P5+1 and our partners around the world to hold up their ends of the bargain if the United States isn’t going to uphold its end of the bargain,” he said, adding:
If we appear to be going off on our own tangent and do whatever we want we will potentially lose their support for the sanctions themselves because we don’t just enforce them by ourselves, we need their help. And I don’t want to threaten the unity that we currently have with respect to this approach particularly when it doesn’t cost us a thing to go through this process knowing that we could put sanctions in place additionally in a week and we would be there with you seeking to do it. I don’t want to give the Iranians public excuse to flout the agreement.
It appears that the Iranians might indeed take that opportunity to flout the agreement. When asked by Time Magazine what would happen if Congress passed new sanctions, “even if they don’t go into effect for six months,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, “The entire deal is dead.”
But Kerry’s wider argument echoes what CAP expert Matt Duss noted this week. “[New sanctions] would put the United States at odds both with its P5+1 partners and the broader international community, whose cooperation has been essential to the sanctions’ effectiveness, and who have made clear that further reductions to Iran’s oil sales would be difficult for them to manage,” he wrote. “It could also dramatically undermine Iranian confidence that the Obama administration can follow through on the eventual comprehensive deal that addresses all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for much broader sanctions relief. After all, if the president can’t even hold his own government to this modest first-phase agreement, how can he be expected to sell a larger, probably more controversial one?”
At the moment it is unclear if Congress will pass new sanctions on Iran any time soon. Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have been leading the charge in the senate but it appears that the National Defense Authorization bill will pass without any Iran amendments and the Banking Committee — where sanctions would have jurisdiction — has yet to take up the House’s Iran sanctions bill. But the Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Kirk and Menendez may propose a stand alone measure noting that “it will fall” to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “to decide whether the Menendez-Kirk bill gets a full vote.”