The Cable

Congress hot to trot on Iran sanctions

As the Obama administration pursues new multilateral Iran sanctions at the U.N., Congress is getting ready to move forward with its own sanctions bill, which the administration is still not happy with.

A senior Senate aide close to the process said the House and Senate will soon move to conference on resolving the two versions of the Iran sanctions legislation, one led by Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, and the other sponsored by Chris Dodd, D-CT. The State Department had been negotiating with key senators over Dodd's bill, seeking an exemption for any countries they determine to be "cooperating" with the U.S. on the sanctions regime.

This Washington Post article makes it seem like the Obama administration is just beginning to push for exemptions for all the P5+1 countries, including Russia and China, but actually that's been the State Department's position since December.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, has faced pressure not to dawdle with the bill, passing it through his chamber at the end of January. But the conference, where the State Department planned to get the exemptions it wants, wasn't expected to go forward until the U.N. game had played out.

And while the conference could last a long time and no final vote push is imminent, several congressional aides told The Cable Friday that their bosses were getting impatient with the ever-slipping deadline for U.N. action and that a large exemption that includes Russia and China would not fly on Capitol Hill.

"When we had the discussions in December about cooperating countries, it boiled down to the fact that the administration was demanding an exemption that was large enough to drive a truck through and that was not well received in the Congress," said one senior congressional aide close to the discussions.

The administration had pledged to wrap up at the U.N. in February during the French rotating presidency, then that slipped to March, and now lawmakers are being told April. The timing and the strength of the U.N. sanctions will directly affect what Congress does, the aide said.

"People on both sides want to give the administration the time they need and there's a genuine desire to be helpful, but the more this things drags on, the more there is going to be growing pressure in Congress about this," said the aide.

The aide spelled out two hypothetical scenarios: In Scenario A, the Security Council puts in place a very tough sanctions regime with China's signoff. In that case, the imperative for stringent congressionally mandated sanctions could diminish.

In Scenario B, despite a year spent on engagement, sold as necessary to rally the international community, sanctions are weak and China is not forced to change its behavior. In that case, the aide said, it will be very hard for the administration to turn to Congress and say "You don't need to move on tough sanctions now."

Some senators don't think an exemption for cooperating countries is necessary in the first place, since the bill gives the president the power to waive any sanctions if he chooses. One senior Senate aide said that his boss will resist any attempts to water down the Senate version of the bill.

Also, "I have not heard anybody who thinks it's a good idea to exempt China from the sanctions regime," this aide said.

AFP/Getty Images

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