Republican senators vowed Sunday to pursue additional sanctions against Iran, brushing off unusually blunt and dire warnings from President Obama that any more penalties for Tehran would threaten to scuttle nuclear talks and possibly lead to war.
Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he had no faith in Mr. Obama’s ability to negotiate a deal that would stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
“These negotiations were lost right from the get-go when we lessened sanctions and we basically allowed Iran to continue to enrich uranium, contrary to all the U.N. resolutions,” Mr. Johnson said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“I do not see a good deal coming out of this administration, and a bad deal is worse than no deal at all. I think imposing additional sanctions is the only way to bring Iran to the negotiating table in good faith,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who appeared on the same show as Mr. Johnson, agreed that Congress has to be ready to impose additional penalties if Iran continues to pursue nuclear arms.
“The question is when do we do it, and that’s the issue and discussions taking place on Capitol Hill,” said Mr. Cardin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking member on the committee, is the leading Democratic proponent of passing more sanctions against Iran.
Speaking alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron last week, Mr. Obama told Congress to “hold your fire” and allow his diplomats to continue to negotiate with Iran.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Cameron said more sanctions would splinter the international community, which at this point remains united against Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Mr. Cameron said he has personally contacted several U.S. senators in recent days to urge them to abandon plans for another round of sanctions against Tehran.
Mr. Obama made an especially forceful case why sanctions would be, at best, counterproductive.
He said additional sanctions could derail negotiations to stop Iran’s nuclear program and could lead directly to yet another U.S. military engagement in the Middle East.
“Congress should be aware that if this diplomatic solution fails, then the risks and likelihood this ends up at some point a military confrontation is heightened. And Congress will have to own that as well,” the president said. “So my main message to Congress at this point is, just hold your fire.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and an outspoken critic of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, said additional sanctions would reinforce rather than undermine the U.S. bargaining position with Iran.
“All we are telling the Iranians is, if you walk away from these negotiations, sanctions will be reapplied. If you cheat, they will be reimposed,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I don’t think that’s a disruptive message,” Mr. Graham said via satellite from Jerusalem.
Mr. Graham, who is touring the Middle East, also confirmed that he is exploring a presidential run, a point an Obama administration spokesman emphasized in accusing Mr. Graham of trying to run U.S. foreign policy.
“What Lindsey Graham would like to do is make all the foreign policy decisions for the United States and be commander in chief,” White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer said on the NBC show. “But it’s the president’s authority. He is going to see if we can get the best deal we can.”
Mr. Pfeiffer reiterated that more sanctions by Congress would jeopardize nuclear talks.
“They may pass a resolution regardless. They are welcome to do that. The president has a veto if he doesn’t support what they do,” he said.
A preliminary deal that slowed some parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting some economic sanctions was secured in 2013 by the U.S., Britain and its allies in the so-called P5 plus 1, which includes the other three members of the U.N. Security Council — Russia, France and China — plus Germany, representing the European Union.
The two sides have struggled to reach a final agreement, and deadlines have been extended twice. The next one is in June.
Still, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say it is time to double down on economic sanctions against Iran because it will pressure Tehran to give up much more at the negotiating table.
Mr. Menendez reiterated last week that he supports additional sanctions that would not go into effect until July, after the latest deadline for Iran and the international community to reach a final agreement.
Pressure on Mr. Menendez and other senators to abandon the idea of more sanctions is coming not just from the White House but also from other world leaders who fear Congress could torpedo years of diplomacy with Tehran.
“I have contacted a couple of senators this morning not in any way as the British prime minister to tell the American Senate what it should or shouldn’t do. That wouldn’t be right,” Mr. Cameron said. “But simply to make the point that as a country that stands alongside America in these vital negotiations that it is the opinion of the United Kingdom that further sanctions or the further threat of sanctions at this point won’t actually help bring the talks to a successful conclusion and they could fracture the international unity there has been.”
The administration also stresses that it is not opposed to the notion of additional sanctions but merely objects to the timing. Should negotiations to stop Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon collapse, Mr. Obama said, he is fully on board with more sanctions.
“Nobody around the world, least of all the Iranians, doubt my ability to get some additional sanctions passed should these negotiations fail. That’s not a hard vote for me to get through Congress,” he said. “And so the notion that we need to have additional sanctions, or even the possibility of sanctions hanging over their head to force them to a better deal, I think the Iranians know that that is certainly in our back pocket if the negotiations fail.”