A bipartisan group of senators is preparing to defy the White House by introducing new Iran sanctions legislation as early as Thursday or Friday that would increase pressure on Iran if it fails to meet its obligations under the interim deal signed last month.
"The bill is bipartisan, has growing support, and because of that growing support, it may take another day," said Adam Sharon, spokesman for chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez.
The Senate bill, which is being written by Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., proposes future sanctions that go into effect only if Iran violates the interim deal or the deal falls apart, Sharon said in an e-mail.
"They still get their sanctions relief, no new penalties are passed by Congress, and all parties are given the space to keep negotiating," he said.
Secretary of State John Kerry told senators last week that passing new sanctions legislation now would violate the interim deal negotiated with Iran on Nov. 24, which obligates the USA not to impose new sanctions while the six-month deal is underway.
Iran would back out of the deal even if new sanctions passed by Congress are set to start only if the deal falls through or after it expires, Kerry said. And such an action would cause the collapse of the international sanctions coalition that has adhered to U.S. sanctions on Iran, Kerry said.
The White House called the interim agreement a "first step" to buy time while seeking a final agreement that ensures Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons. It offers Iran sanctions relief worth several billion dollars, while requiring it to limit some of its nuclear activities.
Iran must stop producing nuclear fuel that is close to weapons-grade and to convert or dilute that stockpile to a form that is more difficult to turn into a bomb. It also requires Iran not to expand its uranium production operation and not to install critical components in its Arak nuclear power plant, which when running will be able produce enough plutonium for two bombs every year. Iran may continue to produce lower-grade nuclear fuel.
Iranian negotiators wrangling in Vienna, Austria, with world powers on how to implement the Nov. 24 deal walked out on those talks last week, after the U.S. Treasury blacklisted 19 additional Iranian companies in connection to sanctions that are already in force.
Those talks were said to resume Thursday. But nearly a month after the interim deal was inked, the clock has yet to start ticking on its six-month timeline.
The White House has been lobbying Congress for months to hold off on new sanctions legislation, arguing it could scuttle the ongoing talks with Iran. World power are seeking a comprehensive deal that would resolve suspicions that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program, something Iran denies.
President Obama has pledged to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and U.S. ally Israel has threatened to use military force if necessary to stop Iran's nuclear advance.
Many senators reject the White House's and Kerry's argument that the Senate should avoid new sanctions because they could disrupt negotiations, Sharon said.
"Treasury enforced sanctions that came online now, and you saw the Iranian reaction," he said.
According to a draft of the bill under consideration, which would be amended to the Defense Authorization Act, it requires the USA to impose additional sanctions if Iran fails to abide by the interim agreement, does not negotiate in good faith or engages in terrorism against the USA or its citizens anywhere in the world. The bill also stipulates that sanctions will increase if Iran tests any ballistic missile with a range of 500 km or more.
The bill would require the president to seek the dismantling of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, including fuel production facilities, its heavy water reactor under construction in Arak, "and any nuclear weapon and production components." And it would require Iran to answer all questions of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, related to the military component of its nuclear program.
The USA and its allies in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, worry that Iran is a developing the capacity to produce a nuclear weapons in secret before international monitors are able to detect the effort and rally to stop it. The White House has said the interim deal extended that so-called breakout period from two months to three or four months.
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who has counseled members of Congress on toughening sanctions on Iran, says there's frustration on Capitol Hill over recent comments made by Iranian officials about wanting to produce higher-grade nuclear fuel for submarines and over details of the interim deal that emerged since it was inked.
According to Iran's Fars News Agency, Iranian lawmakers on Saturday declared they are considering a bill to require the government to produce uranium fuel that is 60% pure, to power submarines and ships. Weapons grade uranium is 90% pure.
The measure is under consideration "Given the method that the other negotiating side (the US in particular) has adopted during the nuclear negotiations," Seyed Mehdi Moussavinejad, a member of the Iranian parliament's Energy Commission, told Fars.
The most concerning thing about interim deal is that it does not address Iran's ongoing work on the military aspect of its nuclear program, including design and testing of warheads, ballistic missiles and nuclear triggers, Dubowitz said.
"Iran gets six more months to do all those things to perfect the nuclear military side of their program and we gain one more month of breakout capacity," he said.