- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Senate Democrats on Tuesday backed away from a bipartisan push for immediate new sanctions on Iran, bowing to President Obama’s call not to undercut international talks to get Tehran to curb its nuclear programs in the coming weeks.

The shift, announced Tuesday by Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat and one of the party’s outspoken hawks on Iran, came amid a series of mixed signals from the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency over the question of whether Tehran was honoring promises to put its suspect nuclear programs on hold as the talks intensified.

Mr. Obama has found himself increasingly at odds not only with Republicans but with members of his own party over the nuclear talks, which have been extended twice over the past year as the U.S. and its partners — Germany, Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany — have been unable to strike a deal with the Islamic Republic.

SEE ALSO: Iran’s price for Obama’s coveted legacy

The delay also comes despite new fears that Iran is growing increasingly emboldened in the region following the coup carried out this month by Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim Houthis in Yemen, ousting a key U.S. ally in the fight against al Qaeda.

Mr. Menendez had previously co-authored legislation to tighten sanctions if there is no deal by the end of June, but he said Tuesday that he and other party leaders want to give the Obama administration until at least March 24 before throwing their weight behind the legislation — and they’ll only support it if there’s no agreement in place with Tehran by then.

U.S. allies have opposed the idea of the legislation, and a top Obama administration official immediately welcomed the temporary shift away from it by Democrats.

Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken told a Senate Banking Committee hearing that the delay was a “recognition that our negotiators could use some additional time and space to pursue the diplomatic option in the absence of this legislation being passed.”

Veto threat

Mr. Obama threatened to veto any new sanctions legislation, saying the bill would run the risk of scuttling the delicate nuclear talks, heighten the risk of a military showdown, and leave much of the world blaming Washington for the failure of the talks.

Republican lawmakers continued to argue Tuesday that the administration has been too lenient over the past year, easing the current regime of sanctions on Tehran in exchange for the cooperation of Iranian negotiators to keep talking.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said that despite the president’s willingness to “move closer and closer to Iranian positions,” the talks “appear to be stalemated.”

The California Republican said during a committee hearing Tuesday that Iran’s leaders are guilty of “duplicity and militancy,” and that Tehran has been “advancing its nuclear program” while putting “on a good face in a European negotiating room.”

“A final agreement would free Iran of sanctions — which has driven it to the negotiating table — while allowing it to maintain a mutually defined [nuclear] enrichment program, to be treated like any other non-threshold nuclear state,” Mr. Royce said in prepared remarks. “That best case would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state.”

Western powers originally leveled sanctions on Tehran after years of suspicion that Iranian leaders were clandestinely pursuing nuclear weapons in violation of U.N. regulations. Tehran has long denied this, claiming its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes.

Robert J. Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration, said

Iran’s economy is still feeling the pinch of Western sanctions as the talks proceed.

“Although companies around the world have held discussions with Iran in the hope of entering or re-entering the Iranian market, they are taking a very cautious approach, waiting for a nuclear deal to be concluded and sanctions to be removed before taking the risk of signing new contracts,” he said.

No blank check

Mr. Menendez asserted that he and other Democrats have no intention of giving the administration a blank check to continue pursuing negotiations with Iran without the threat of further sanctions. He added that a group of senior Democratic senators made that clear in a letter to the White House on Tuesday.

“We remain deeply skeptical that Iran is committed to making the concessions required to demonstrate to the world that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful by March 24th,” he said.

According to The Associated Press, the letter was signed by Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York — the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate — Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Ben Cardin of Maryland, Chris Coons of Delaware, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

The administration also got a boost from the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus, which released its own letter Tuesday urging the House and Senate panels to postpone work on new sanctions legislation while the Iran talks proceed.

It was not immediately clear if GOP congressional leaders will seek to push through their own sanctions legislation before the end of March.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he hopes the banking committee will produce such a bill “very soon.”

A critical question in the talks centers on whether Tehran is allowing U.N. weapons inspectors sufficient access to Iranian nuclear sites to confirm that the nation is not pursuing a nuclear weapon. The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog group — the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — has given mixed signals on the question recently.

A monthly Iran report issued by the IAEA last week concluded that Tehran is honoring its commitments not to expand nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons while it negotiates with the U.S. and other world powers.

But days after the report became public, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano suggested Tehran may still be diverting some material from civilian nuclear activities to a secret weapons program.

IAEA inspectors have verified “the non-diversion of nuclear material declared to us by Iran,” Mr. Amano told an audience at the University of Indonesia on Jan. 23, “but we are not in a position to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran.”

Inspectors “are not in a position” to “conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities,” the IAEA chief said.

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