Now that the U.N. Security Council has passed its new sanctions resolution against Iran, the path is clear for Congress to move forward with its own, tougher set of sanctions.
Lead sponsors Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, and Rep. Howard Berman, D-CA, had agreed to give the administration more time to complete the U.N. track before reconciling the Senate and House versions of Iran sanctions legislation. After an unusually public first session of the conference committee, work has been quietly proceeding at the staff level and is finishing up now.
The sequencing here is important. Congress is also waiting until the European Union has a chance to meet and announce its own set of measures. That meeting will happen June 16 and 17 in Brussels. After that, Congress will have two weeks to unveil its bicameral bill before lawmakers leave town for the July 4 recess.
"We now look to the European Union and other key nations that share our deep concern about Iran's nuclear intentions to build on the Security Council resolution by imposing tougher national measures that will deepen Iran's isolation and, hopefully, bring the Iranian leadership to its senses," Berman said Wednesday. "The U.S. Congress will do its part by passing sanctions legislation later this month."
Hill sources say that it's still unclear whether Congress will be able to pass the conference report out of both chambers before the July 4 recess, as Dodd and Berman promised. But they see the passing of the U.N. resolution as the needed signal to move the conference process to its final conclusion.
"Now that the U.N. vote is behind us, there is a strong case to be made that the sanctions should be as strong as possible," said one congressional aide working on the issue. "We've now begun the process of what is essentially the last, best hope of stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program."
Still, even among sanctions advocates, there's great skepticism that Iran can be convinced to change course.
"The good news is that everything is going according to plan," the aide said. "The bad news is that the plan might not work."
Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, alluded to that Wednesday when calling for continued diplomatic engagement with the Iranian regime.
"Iran's nuclear program cannot be peacefully resolved without direct dialogue with the leadership in Tehran," Kerry said. "While today's action puts wind in the sails of this process, it is only the first step. We need more diplomatic creativity, energy and a clear vision of what is possible."
Kerry's committee will hold a hearing June 22 on the U.N. sanctions with the under secretaries of state and Treasury, William Burns and Stuart Levey, two of the administration's top point men on Iran.
The main issues inside the conference still include whether and how to meet the Obama administration's demand for an exemption from new sanctions for countries that are deemed to be "cooperating" with U.S. efforts. Republican lawmakers worry that the White House will use that to broadly exempt some of Iran closest business partners, such as Russia and China.
"It is clear the president's policy has failed. It is now time for the Congress to approve the Iran sanctions bill currently in conference committee, without watering it down or plugging it full of loopholes, and then the president should actually use it," said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-AZ.
The fact that the U.N. resolution does not include language to restrict China's oil business with Iran or Russia's nuclear assistance and possible anti-aircraft system sales to Tehran elicited scorn from multiple leading GOP senators.
"I wish I could say that today's Security Council resolution is worth the more than six months it took to produce, but that is just not the case. The resolution is a lowest-common-denominator product," said Sen. John McCain, R-AZ.
We're told that McCain's proposal to target regime leaders accused of human rights abuses is set to be included in the conference report. We're also hearing that inside the conference, some new sanctions imposing mandatory penalties against international banks that do business with Iran are under discussion.
As far as we know, neither the House nor Senate leadership has allotted floor time for the bill yet, but that shouldn't be too much of a burden. The Iran sanctions legislation is expected to be passed relatively quickly and with broad bipartisan support.