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Is US Congress on Verge of Sabotaging Iran Nuclear Deal?

Despite warnings against new sanctions, both chambers appear willing to move ahead

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Secretary of State John Kerry listens to opening statements as he waits to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)Despite repeated warnings that such a move could scuttle the hopes for a comprehensive and more permanent agreement on Iran's domestic nuclear program, U.S. senators are preparing the introduction of legislation that would impose tougher new sanctions if the interim deal reached last month in Geneva doesn't meet a six-month deadline for progress.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, however, has said that the imposition of new sanctions—even those set out in the future—would most definitely set ongoing negotiations back and could possibly sabotage them all together.

“The entire deal is dead,” Zarif told TIME magazine in an interview earlier this week, responding to a question about the impact of such a move by Congress.

"We do not like to negotiate under duress," Zarif said. "If Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States."

"I know the domestic complications and various issues inside the United States, but for me that is no justification," he continued. "I have a parliament. My parliament can also adopt various legislation that can go into effect if negotiations fail. But if we start doing that, I don't think that we will be getting anywhere."

Leading the charge for new sanctions are Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois). Both lawmakers have strong ties to the pro-Israeli lobbyist groups in Washington and have been expressly hawkish when it comes to Iran and have shown little accommodation when it comes to welcoming the possibility of a peaceful deal with Tehran.

On Wednesday, the entire Senate listened to a briefing by Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary John Kerry who told members that the new restrictions on Iranian oil exports and banking would seriously jeopardize what many have called the "historic" diplomatic progress made in recent months.

According to Reuters, however, the "session seemed to have done little to change lawmakers' minds."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a supporter of the Menendez-Kirk plan, said after the meeting that the sanctions bill should go ahead.

"Giving the administration a six-month period to negotiate a successful deal makes sense to me. But having sanctions hanging over the head of the Iranians if the deal is not acceptable also makes sense to me," Graham told reporters after the meeting with Kerry and Lew.

Graham said he anticipated a vote on the plan in January. He insisted it would win enough support not only to pass, but also the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

Earlier in the week, the House Foreign Relations Committee also heard testimony from Kerry, but voiced little support for the ongoing diplomatic pathway generated by November's interim agreement.

As the Washington Post reported:

Many in Congress — not satisfied with the nuclear deal reached last month in Geneva — believe that applying further pressure on the government of President Hassan Rouhani is the only way to extract concessions that would ensure Iran never develops nuclear weapons.

The Obama administration argues that those penalties would violate the letter and spirit of the placeholder agreement and undermine U.S. authority just as the United States and its negotiating partners begin the harder task of trying to reach a permanent deal with Iran.

“This is a very delicate diplomatic moment,” Kerry pleaded Tuesday. “We have a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world faces today.”

The secretary got no public support for the argument that the interim deal, or a potential final one, makes Israel and the world safer. He allowed that his dealings with Iranian officials leave doubts about whether they are willing to make the difficult concessions that a final deal would require.

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