WASHINGTON: The White House warned Congress Thursday that President Barack Obama would veto a bill threatening new sanctions on Iran, saying it could derail diplomacy aimed at sealing a comprehensive nuclear deal.
The bill, backed by both Democratic and Republican senators, would impose new sanctions on Iran if it violates an interim nuclear pact arrived at last month or if no final deal is reached.
But the White House appears alarmed that the move could undermine the Iranian negotiating team or offer the Islamic Republic an excuse to walk away from the negotiations.
“We don’t think this action is necessary, we don’t think it will be enacted, if it were enacted, the president would veto it,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a press briefing.
Carney argued that the legislation was unnecessary because if a deal was not reached there would be no impediment to Congress, in conjunction with the White House, to swiftly pass tougher sanctions.
“We do not believe now is the time to pass any additional new sanctions through Congress,” Carney said.
“It is very important to refrain from taking an action that would potentially disrupt the opportunity for a diplomatic resolution,” the spokesman added.
Twenty-six U.S. senators introduced new Iran sanctions legislation earlier in the day, despite an intense White House lobbying campaign.
The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez, fellow Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Mark Kirk, would kick in if Iran violates the interim deal or if negotiators fail to reach a comprehensive final agreement.
“Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith,” Menendez said in a statement introducing the legislation.
Among the Democrats signing the letter were Tim Johnson, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over sanctions legislation, and Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.
It was not immediately clear if or when the bill could see a vote on the Senate floor. A vote this year is highly unlikely, with the Senate set to recess this week until early 2014.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he is opposed to bringing such a bill to the floor in January, saying he agreed with the Obama administration’s call to give the delicate negotiations a chance to work. Should the landmark interim deal collapse, the proposed sanctions would require Iran to reduce its oil production and would apply new penalties to the Islamic Republic’s engineering, mining and construction industries.
The new legislation was introduced as negotiations were resumed in Geneva between Iran and world powers in the so-called P5+1: the United States, China, Britain, France, Russia and Germany.
Iran’s foreign minister also has said a new sanctions law would kill the interim agreement reached in Geneva on Nov. 24.
In that deal, Tehran agreed to limit uranium enrichment in return for an easing of international sanctions.
It was not immediately clear whether or when the measure might come to the Senate floor for a vote, given staunch opposition by Obama’s administration and many of its supporters in Congress.
But it also gives the administration up to a year to pursue a diplomatic track resulting in the “complete and verifiable termination” of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the group of senators said as they announced the legislation.
“Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table,” Menendez said in a statement.