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Even After Obama's Lobbying, Key Dems Say No to Easing Iran Sanctions

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators dug in against the Obama administration Tuesday as the president held a long closed-door session with skeptical committee leaders in an effort to win them over to his preferred method of negotiating with Iran.

That, as President Obama told the Wall Street Journal CEO Council in the afternoon, means Washington would “open up the spigot a little bit for a very modest amount of relief that is entirely subject to reinstatement if, in fact, they violated any part of this early agreement.”

“And it would purchase a period of time — let’s say, six months — during which we could see if they could get to the end state of a position where we, the Israelis, the international community could say with confidence Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapon,” Obama said.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle cautioned once again, though, that the Islamic Republic was using Obama’s deal-making to buy time to reach an operational nuclear weapons program.

“Essentially, what we do is we allow them to access a small portion of these assets that are frozen,” Obama said. “So what we are suggesting both to the Israelis, to members of Congress here, to the international community, but also to the Iranians, is, let’s look, let’s test the proposition that over the next six months we can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion, while maintaining the essential sanctions architecture, and, as president of the United States, me maintaining all options to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons. I think that is a test that is worth conducting.”

“And my hope and expectation is not that we’re going to solve all of this just this week in this interim phase, but rather that we’re purchasing ourselves some time to see how serious the Iranian regime might be in re-entering membership in the world community and taking the yoke of these sanctions off the backs of their economy.”

Before the Four Seasons Hotel event, Obama was huddled with senators in the Roosevelt Room at the White House for about two hours, with Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Chairmen, ranking members, and other members of the Senate Banking, Foreign Relations, Armed Services and Intelligence committees were in attendance.

“The President made clear that achieving a peaceful resolution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is profoundly in America’s national security interest. The initial, 6-month step of the P5+1 proposal would halt progress on the Iranian nuclear program and roll it back in key respects, stopping the advance of the program for the first time in nearly a decade and introducing unprecedented transparency into Iran’s nuclear activities while we negotiate a long-term, comprehensive solution. The President underscored that in the absence of a first step, Iran will continue to make progress on its nuclear program by increasing its enrichment capacity, continuing to grow its stockpile of enriched uranium, installing advanced centrifuges, and making progress on the plutonium track at the Arak reactor,” the White House said in a readout of the meeting.

“…He reiterated that the purpose of sanctions was and remains to change Iran’s calculus regarding its nuclear program. He indicated that new sanctions should not be enacted during the current negotiations, but that they would be most effective as a robust response should negotiations fail.”

While the White House continues to insist that all options are on the table to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, Obama stressed to the senators that he “firmly believes that it would be preferable to do so peacefully.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) called the exchange “a very good, long, detailed conversation about where things are.”

“This weekend, obviously, in Geneva, a breakthrough could occur, might not occur. I don’t think anybody’s looking at it as a fait accompli,” Corker told CNN, adding there were “a lot” of senators “concerned about alleviating the leverage that we have and not getting enough in return and a lot of concerns about this is interim deal being the new norm, that once you hit this interim deal, that’s the end of it.”

The senator said there was “a good deal of discussion about Israel… obviously, because of Iran’s stated position of wanting to wipe Israel off the map, and the proximity, obviously, to Israel, this is something that’s more up close and personal by far.”

“There really wasn’t a great deal of discussion about the relationship, the allies, except in passing,” Corker added.

But by the afternoon, Obama had lost two of his key allies in that meeting as Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, joined their colleague Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Republicans Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) in demanding that Kerry take any rollback of sanctions off the negotiating table. Out of those Republicans, McCain was in the meeting with the president.

“We are concerned that the interim agreement would require us to make significant concessions before we see Iran demonstrably commit to moving away from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” the senators wrote to Kerry.

“It is our understanding that the interim agreement now under consideration would not require Iran to even meet the terms of prior United Nations Security Council resolutions which require Iran to suspend its reprocessing, heavy water-related and enrichment-related activities and halt ongoing construction of any uranium-enrichment, reprocessing, or heavy water-related facilities,” they continued. “…We feel strongly that any easing of sanctions along the lines that the P5+1 is reportedly considering should require Iran to roll back its nuclear program more significantly than now envisioned.”

The lawmakers insisted that, going into the next round of negotiations, Kerry “must be ever mindful of with whom we are negotiating.”

“Iran has been the largest state sponsor of terrorism for over thirty years; its leaders routinely call for the destruction of Israel; and it arms and finances terrorist groups around the globe,” the senators wrote. “We urge you and your negotiating team to fight for an interim agreement that demands as much or more of Iran as it does of the United States and our allies.”

On the House side, Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Obama today expressing “great concern regarding the scope and content of the interim agreement under negotiation with Iran.”

Their concern stems from what Iran won’t be required to do in terms of suspending enrichment and reprocessing activities, centrifuge production or construction of facilities. But Royce and Engel also focused on the administration seemingly buying into Iran’s argument that it has a right to nuclear power.

“First, the United States must prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. And second, Iran does not have an inherent right to enrichment and reprocessing under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT),” they wrote. “This was clearly articulated as your Administration’s position by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who stated in testimony last month that ‘we do not believe there is an inherent right by anyone to enrichment.’ We strongly believe that any agreement should not implicitly or explicitly recognize an inherent right by Iran to enrich uranium.”

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said today that no country has the “right to enrich,” but when pressed on whether this is a concession she “wouldn’t analyze it one way or the other in terms of the impact it will have.”

Corker noted that nothing the Senate could do this week, even if Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) allowed it to come to the floor, would matter in this week’s negotiations. But that doesn’t mean lawmakers aren’t trying to stop potentially cataclysmic concessions in Geneva.

“Mr. President, the United States cannot allow Iran to continue to advance toward a nuclear weapons capability while at the same time providing relief from the sanctions pressure we worked so hard to build, and the Administration has worked to enforce. It was sanctions and economic pressure that brought Iran to the table. We believe Congress has an important role to play in ensuring that effective pressure is brought to bear on Iran to keep its nuclear program from advancing,” Royce and Engel wrote. “We must sustain economic pressure and consequent political pressure on the Iranian regime if we hope to reach a final agreement in which Iran has verifiably dismantled its nuclear program.”

The pair authored the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013 to levy new human rights, economic and financial sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Graham said Tuesday morning that he plans to introduce a resolution outlining the strict conditions that need to be met by Iran to roll back any sanctions.

“John Kerry says if Congress takes up another round of sanctions that will lead to war. And some people are saying a bad deal will lead to war. The goal is not to have a war, but what would be a bad deal?” Graham said on Fox.

“If you back off the sanctions, which the president wants us to do, if you infuses this regime with $10 billion and you don’t dismantle their capability to produce a weapon, the international community is gonna say, ah ha, sanctions are behind us, and they’re gonna race to do business with Iran, and that’s exactly what happened with North Korea.”

At a press conference Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused Israel of trying to sabotage talks.

“We have seen that statements coming out of Israel indicate that they are not interested in finding solutions, they have been trying to push for problems,” Zarif said. “So we have reason to be suspicious of every move they make, because every move they make is about building tension and spreading mistrust.”

Iran also accused Israel of bombing its embassy in Beirut, which killed 23 people Tuesday. That attack was actually one in a string of hits on targets in Lebanon against entities supporting the Assad regime in Syria.

Zarif also stressed to Iranian reporters that reaching an agreement — which would alarm Israel, France, Saudi Arabia and Congress as rushed — at Wednesday’s talks is on the regime’s agenda.