In a surprise development in Congress, a long-building effort to impose new sanctions on Iran has reached a near-filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Despite months of White House lobbying against the bill, 58 Senators now support the so-called "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act," according to a Senate aide close to the process.
The bill's bipartisan backing puts Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in an awful bind. Either he defies President Obama and allows a vote on the legislation. Or he goes along with the White House -- and takes on the majority of his fellow senators.
"The only way you can get a vote is if Reid allows it," said a separate Senate aide. "Hence the question ... Does Reid support sanctions -- yes or no?"
A spokesman for Reid did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In December, the White House threatened to veto the legislation for fear that it would implode last November's interim nuclear deal in Geneva. At that time, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told Time magazine "the entire deal is dead" if Congress passses the legislation. Now Reid, who said last month he would eventually bring the issue to a vote, is confronted with demands by the White House to bury it. On the flipside, Democratic allies and pro-Israel lobbyists are hounding him to put the legislation to a vote.
"AIPAC thinks Reid is their ally, but he's carrying water for the administration," said a Senate aide, referring to the influential pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which supports the bill. "[It's] hard to keep playing both sides, but he'll keep doing it as long as he can."
If passed, the bill -- sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) -- would impose sanctions on Tehran if it fails to agree to a comprehensive nuclear deal either this year or next. Democrats supporting it include liberals such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Since its introduction last month, support for the bill has more than doubled from 26 cosponsors to 53 as of this week.
"Every day this week, the legislation has added additional cosponsors," said a Senate aide.
Close watchers of the bill disagree on what Reid will ultimately do. "Reid's in a tight spot," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the pro-sanctions Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "I think it's going to be hard for Reid to resist pressure and at least put it to a vote and see if there's sufficient support to override the veto."
Another Senate aide said Reid will likely stick with the White House. "I believe Reid sides with the administration and prevents any votes for 6-9 months," said the aide.
Late last year, Washington, Tehran and five other world powers sealed a six-month interim deal in Geneva. A main function of the legislation is to dictate the terms of a long-term, comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran. The bill requires the dismantlement of all of Iran's uranium enrichment facilities. Some non-proliferation experts fear the terms are too strict, and could signal that Washington isn't negotiating in good faith. "While Iran may agree in the end to dismantle some of its nuclear infrastructure, there is no realistic chance that it will dismantle all of its uranium enrichment capability," said Edward Levine of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.