A last-minute effort to introduce new Iran sanctions legislation before the Christmas recess collapsed on Thursday morning following intense pressure from the White House and State Department.
Ever since Iran and six world powers signed an interim agreement to restrain Tehran's nuclear program, the Obama administration has opposed any new sanctions legislation against the Islamic state, saying it would derail delicate nuclear talks in Geneva. In defiance of that position, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, huddled with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) to craft a non-binding resolution that outlines the terms of a final nuclear deal with Iran and calls for additional sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
A congressional aide tells The Cable that Hoyer personally made edits to the resolution and all four lawmakers agreed on the final language as of Wednesday night. However, on Thursday morning, Hoyer backed off unexpectedly.
"Mr. Hoyer decided now was not the time to move forward with a resolution given implementation talks have not yet wrapped in Vienna," Hoyer spokeswoman Stephanie Young tells The Cable, referring to upcoming talks in Austria.
Cantor's office confirmed that the resolution would not be introduced before the Christmas recess. "The Leader is disappointed we could not move ahead with the resolution this week, but he will continue to work with Whip Hoyer, Chairman Royce and Congressman Engel to get the agreed on resolution to the floor as soon as possible," said Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper.
Given the White House's vociferous opposition to new sanctions legislation, some Democrats were taken aback by Hoyer's apparent willingness to defy the administration. "Members were surprised that Hoyer initially embraced a concept of working up a legislative product on Iran given the sensitivities at the White House," a Democratic congressional aide told The Cable.
A copy of the resolution, obtained by The Cable, calls on Iran to "suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities" and allow for inspections of "all suspect sites, including military facilities, and full access to all Iranian personnel, scientists, and technicians associated with Iran's nuclear program." Those terms differ from the final deal the Obama administration is believed to be negotiating with Tehran, which would allow for some enrichment activities.
In hearing after hearing, Democrats and Republicans have expressed opposition to the administration's nuclear deal with Iran, saying the concessions Iran made on its nuclear program, such as giving inspectors access to its nuclear facilities, do not justify the easing of $7 billion worth of sanctions. The deal is also strenuously opposed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying firm.
On Thursday, Wendy Sherman, the State Department's chief negotiator on Iran, defended the interim deal before the Senate committee in charge of sanctions.
Sherman warned that passing new sanctions now would not only derail the agreement, but also threaten the current laws restricting Iran's trade and financial transactions. She said new sanctions would "alienate us from our allies, and risk unraveling the international cohesion that has proven so essential to ensuring sanctions have the intended effect," in the Senate Banking Committee hearing.
Committee Chairman Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said he agreed with the Obama administration's view that more sanctions could cause current negotiations to collapse.
"We should not give Iran, the P5+1 countries or other nations a pretext to lay responsibility for their collapse on us," Johnson said.
Treasury sanctions chief David Cohen also testified that pressure on Iran would continue unabated. Before the hearing Thursday morning, Treasury announced it was adding several companies and individuals to its sanctions blacklist, including a Singaporean shipping company and a businessman in Ukraine who allegedly helped broker the sale of Iranian oil.
With the Cantor-Hoyer effort on ice, all eyes are on Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) who are trying to introduce new sanctions legislation in the Senate. Still, even that effort appears to be getting watered down, judging by Menendez's remarks at the Banking Committee hearing.
"I have been a proponent of pursuing additional sanctions prospectively ... but I'm beginning to think based upon on all of this that maybe what the Senate needs to do is to define the end game, or at least what it finds as acceptable as the final status," Menendez said. "Because I'm getting nervous about what I perceive will be acceptable to [the Obama administration] as a final status ... versus what the Congress might view as acceptable."
"Maybe defining that through a resolution may be a course of action that would affect the ultimate outcome, which is obviously the most important one," Menendez continued.
The comments suggest that it's unlikely that any new binding sanctions legislation will be passed in the Senate before the recess -- a point supported by Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I realize that we're sort of going through a rope-a-dope here in the Senate and that we're not actually going to do anything," he said during the banking hearing.
You can read the full resolution crafted by Cantor and Hoyer below: