The Cable

John Kerry's Iran Briefing Succeeds ... in Solidifying GOP Against Him

In an effort to slam the brakes on a new round of Iran sanctions coming through Congress, Secretary of State John Kerry held a classified briefing with the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday. Although the purpose of the briefing was to convey how new sanctions could derail the delicate negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, Republicans stormed out of the closed-door session in opposition to the Obama administration's message. At the same time, top Democrats remained silent or refused to comment as they exited the Capitol.

"It was solely an emotional appeal," Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told reporters after the briefing. "I am stunned that in a classified setting, when you're trying to talk with the very folks that would be originating legislation relative to sanctions, there would be such a lack of specificity."

"Today is the day in which I witnessed the future of nuclear war in the Middle East," said Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), a staunch Iran hawk. "This administration, like Neville Chamberlain, is yielding large and bloody conflict in the Middle East involving Iranian nuclear weapons." Kirk added that he felt the briefing was "anti-Israeli."

The vituperative GOP response was matched by relative silence by exiting Democrats.

"I'm not gonna comment," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA).

"No comment," said Tim Johnson (D-SD), the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) declined to answer questions about sanctions as he ascended a congressional escalator. 

"Was this a helpful briefing?" asked The Cable.

"Yes. Very helpful," said Reid.

When asked how so, Reid did not elaborate.

A bright spot for the administration did emerge in the form of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) who told The Cable that Kerry's arguments were convincing. "I support Secretary Kerry's explanation of what direction and what needs to be done here and I support his intentions," he said.

On the Hill, Kerry was joined by Vice President Joe Biden and the State Department's chief nuclear weapons negotiator Wendy Sherman. Kerry told reporters ahead of the briefing that passing new sanctions in the Senate risked jeopardizing the talks in Geneva set to resume next week.

"Our hope is that no new sanctions would be put in place for the simple reason that, if they are, it could be viewed as bad faith by the people we are negotiating with," Kerry said. "It could destroy the ability to be able to get agreement and it could actually wind up setting us back in dialogue that's taken 30 years to achieve."

The Senate Banking Committee is looking at a bill passed by the House of Representatives designed to choke off remaining oil sales in Iran. Other lawmakers have recommended adding new sanctions to the National Defense Authorization Act under consideration in the Senate.

Though the call for a pause in sanctions is receiving a chilly reception in Congress, it does have the support of influential circles of ex-diplomats and national security experts.

"Additional sanctions are unnecessary and could put us in a more difficult spot," Bob Einhorn, who recently left the State Department as its Iran arms control envoy, told The Cable. "It would play into the arguments of Iranian hardliners that the U.S. isn't interested in a nuclear deal. It would also have the broader international impact of portraying us in a less reasonable light than the Iranians and thereby eroding support for sanctions."

The Cable

White House Blasts New Iran Sanctions as "March to War"

In its most forceful language to date, the White House and State Department blasted Congressional efforts to place new sanctions on Iran as delicate negotiations continue on the country's nuclear program. Without mincing words, U.S. officials warned that spoiling diplomatic talks with Iran would be a "march to war."

"It is important to understand that if pursuing a resolution diplomatically is disallowed or ruled out, what options, then, do we and our allies have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?" said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. "The American people do not want a march to war."

In a separate briefing at the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki drove home the point. "Putting new sanctions in place would be a mistake while we're still determining a diplomatic route forward," she said. 

For weeks, administration officials have depicted hawks in Congress as "very effective" and "important partners" in levying sanctions against the Islamic Republic. But now, as Iran and six world powers near a potentially historic nuclear deal in Geneva -- one that Secretary of State John Kerry said is "extremely close" to completion -- the administration is ramping up its opposition to new sanctions. 

The urgent push makes sense, says Bob Einhorn, who recently left the State Department as its Iran arms control envoy. "Additional sanctions are unnecessary and could put us in a more difficult spot," he told The Cable. "It would play into the arguments of Iranian hardliners that the U.S. isn't interested in a nuclear deal. It would also have the broader international impact of portraying us in a less reasonable light than the Iranians and thereby eroding support for sanctions."

Einhorn, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said losing international support for sanctions carries substantial risk. "The sanctions that are now hurting Iran are not those imposed by the United States but by other countries," he said. " The Chinese, the Indians, the Turks, the South Koreans, and the Japanese: All of them have participated in this sanctions regime because they believed it was necessary to pressure the Iranians to negotiate seriously. If it now looks like we're not negotiating seriously, we can expect support for sanctions to erode."

On Wednesday, Kerry will urge members of the Senate Banking Committee to slam the brakes on a new round of sanctions against Iran already passed in the House of Representatives. But convincing lawmakers, including a sizeable cohort of Democrats, is proving difficult.

In recent months, many liberals have voiced support for placing additional sanctions on Iran, such as Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa), Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.).

On Monday, Israel told The Cable now is not the time to wait. "I think the Senate should take it up," said Israel, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "The House has done its work. There is no deal. And in the absence of a deal we have to sustain pressure. The U.S. Senate shouldn't cede that pressure through inaction."

Meanwhile, the administration is unlikely to pick up much support from Republicans who have long been critical of its engagement with Iranian's newly-elected moderate President Hassan Rouhani. "We're very concerned that in their desire to make any deal that they may in fact do something that is very bad for our country," said Senator Bob Corker, the most senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "We think that is the greater threat to our country right now."

A key vote to watch will be Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, who remains on the fence. A committee aide tells The Cable the senator won't declare his position until Wednesday at the earliest. "Members of the Banking Committee are going to be briefed on the Geneva negotiations by Secretary of State Kerry," said the aide," and Chairman Johnson will not make a decision on additional sanctions until he has had a chance to consult with his colleagues following the briefing."