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Congress to hold off on Iran sanctions for now

Dec. 11, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
John Kerry
Secretary of State John Kerry responds to a reporters question Dec. 11 in Washington about his closed-door briefing with senators on the recent agreement reached between Iran and Western powers on Iran's nuclear program. (Susan Walsh / AP)
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WASHINGTON — Possible House action this week against Iran could fall short of new penalties that might derail a short-term nuclear agreement and Senate steps seem further off, legislatives aides said Wednesday, as the Obama administration appealed for patience.

In the House, the aides said Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., could introduce a nonbinding resolution as early as Thursday spelling out suggested terms for any final deal. The goal would be a vote before the House leaves on recess Friday.

Senate aides reported that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was talking about possible votes in January. His intent, they said, was to ensure the issue does not interfere with passage of a defense bill before senators break next week for Christmas.

As a result, Congress is not expected to approve new sanctions until January at the earliest, giving President Obama at least a few more weeks before his diplomatic effort could face added complications.

The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss the legislative maneuvering.

The U.S. and other world powers reached an agreement with Iran last month that provides Iran with $7 billion in relief from U.S. economic penalties in exchange for a series of nuclear concessions.

The administration also committed to no new nuclear-related penalties for six months, a promise that upset members of both parties in Congress.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew met with much of the Senate in private Wednesday in a renewed effort to hold on any legislation that might scuttle the nuclear deal.

Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that even if lawmakers suspended fresh penalties on condition that Iran didn't violate its commitments, those sanctions would be a sign of bad faith to America's negotiating partners and could provide Tehran with an excuse to walk away from negotiations.

Obama and Kerry say a final deal next year is uncertain, but stress that diplomacy is far preferable to any military solution.

Iran insists its nuclear program is solely designed for peaceful energy generation and medical research purposes. The U.S. and several other countries long have viewed the program as a covert attempt by Iran to develop nuclear weapons capability.

Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., are close to completing a bill that would require that the administration certify every 30 days Iran's adherence to the interim pact, according to legislative aides.

Without that certification, the legislation would reimpose all penalties and introduce new restrictions on Iran's engineering, mining and construction industries.

The legislation also calls for a global boycott of Iranian oil by 2015 if Iran fails to live up to the interim agreement. Foreign companies and banks violating the bans would be barred from doing business in the United States.

Menendez declined to comment on his plans, but said he would listen to Kerry's presentation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would be open to allowing this year's defense bill to pass without including new sanctions, if he could get a guarantee that the topic would come up soon. "That will go a long way to shape my thinking," Graham said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the Senate needs to deal with the issue "sooner rather than later."

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., is pushing his own bill. It doesn't seek to ramp up sanctions but looks to lock in those already in place until Iran completely halts all uranium enrichment activity — a demand U.S. officials long ago conceded.

"My concern is that the administration in another, quote, trust-building measure, will alleviate some more sanctions for another baby step which really doesn't accomplish anything relative to dismantling the enrichment programs," Corker told reporters.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said any new commercial restrictions against Iran could kill the diplomatic effort.

Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.

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