Claim That Iran Sanctions Are Like a Spigot Doesn't Hold Water Under Questioning of Treasury Official

WASHINGTON -- The Treasury Department official in charge of implementing sanctions on rogue regimes was tripped up by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday when grilled on how quickly sanctions could even be restarted if the Iran nuclear deal falls through.

As expected, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who has been leading the U.S. delegation in the Geneva negotiations, pressed the administration line that Congress moving forward on new sanctions would "derail" diplomacy, "alienate us from our allies and risk unraveling the international cohesion that has proven so essential to ensuring that our sanctions have the intended effect."

"We have made it clear to Iran that if it fails to live up to its commitment, or if we are unable to reach agreement on a comprehensive solution, we would ask Congress to ramp up new sanctions immediately," Sherman told the morning hearing.

Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), an author of the Iran sanctions bill that has raised such ire at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., noted to Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen that "all of the sanctions that I've offered with Senator [Mark] Kirk and members have supported, they always have to have at least a 6-month period of time in order to give countries and companies the notice required and the time for you to do the regulations necessary to proceed."

When asked if that was a fair statement, Cohen stammered, "I -- I assume so…"

"Well, you're enforcing them and you've had to pursue them. Have you had less than six months to be able to pursue any of the sanctions that we've passed?" Menendez continued.

"Senator, I sitting here right now don't recall every piece of legislation, whether any of them were immediately effective or there was a phase-in for all of them," Cohen replied. "We have, of course, implemented the sanctions that Congress passes as promptly as possible."

Menendez stressed that "the legislation that became law always had a very long lead time, and then after that, you went to work to try to pursue that," undercutting the administration's argument that sanctions could turn on and off like a spigot as needed.

"To suggest that we can quickly pass sanctions is to not recognize that when we pass sanctions, there are six months from the date of signing before it ever goes into effect, and then after that there's a whole period of time for you actually to pursue enforcement," he said. "…It's not simply about passing sanctions. It's about the timeframe necessary to have them be effective and ultimately to take effect. And that is way beyond the window."

Menendez hadn't spoken publicly about the Iran sanctions effort since President Obama scolded the bill's supporters and vowed to veto any such bill in the State of the Union address.

Today, the senator made clear that he's still in the game.

"Any deal the administration reaches with Iran must be verifiable, effective, and prevent Iran from ever developing even one nuclear weapon," Menendez said. "In my view, based on the parameters described in the joint plan of action, and Iranian comments in the days that have followed, I am very concerned about Iran's willingness to reach such an agreement. This is not a nothing ventured, nothing gained enterprise. We have placed our incredibly effective international sanctions regime on the line without clearly defining the parameters of what we expect in a final agreement."

The chairman brought up a number of telling quotes offered by Iranian official in recent days, including the head of Iran's nuclear agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, telling Iranian state television "the iceberg of sanctions are melting, while our centrifuges are also still working. This is our greatest achievement."

"Well, frankly, it is my greatest fear. Salehi may be correct -- the iceberg of sanctions may melt before we have an agreement in place. That may, in fact, be the Iranian end game."