Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Jan. 9, 2014.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Senate Democrats stall on Iran sanctions


Senate Democrats are stalling on a proposed Iran sanctions bill backed by a majority of Congress’s upper chamber, with Majority Leader Harry Reid declining to bring the legislation up for a vote.

President Obama charged Sunday that the proposed legislation, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Republican, and Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, would hamper diplomatic efforts aimed at getting Iran to deescalate its nuclear program, which the country maintains is for civilian energy use. The bill would impose new sanctions on Iran if the country violates the terms of the interim deal crafted last November and set to take effect on Monday. While supporters say the threat strengthens the U.S.’s negotiating hand, critics fear the move would anger Iranian negotiators and undermine the chance of reaching a deal.

“Unprecedented sanctions and tough diplomacy helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and I’m grateful to our partners in Congress who share our goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Obama said in a statement. But imposing additional sanctions now, he said, “will only risk derailing our efforts to resolve this issue peacefully.” He promised to veto any attempts to enact new sanctions against Iran while negotiations are ongoing.

A statement by National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan on Thursday ratcheted up pressure on Democratic lawmakers, saying the bill “possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military operations or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.”  

Under the interim nuclear agreement, Iran would roll back its nuclear program, a source of tension and instability in the region for more than a decade. The deal calls on Iran to halt uranium enrichment above 5% and neutralize its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium – the nearest to weapons-grade. It also requires Iran to cease work on its plutonium reactor and enrichment capacity. Iran must also allow access to U.N. inspectors in order to verify compliance.

In return, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany have agreed to lift $7-8 billion in sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy, and unlock $4 billion in previously inaccessible oil revenue.

The harshest sanctions would be kept in place until a permanent deal is reached.

The bill presented by Menendez and Kirk, which is backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, would impose new sanctions on Iran should the country fail to reach or comply with a permanent agreement. It would also flesh out terms acceptable by Congress for a final deal, including the cessation of uranium enrichment and construction of new centrifuges, as well as the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear reactors. 

On the heels of news that an implementation agreement had been reached and the six-month agreement would begin the following Monday, Reid said Tuesday that he would “wait and see how this plays out” before committing to bring up the bill in a vote on the Senate floor. A majority of Senators support the bill, including at least 16 Democrats, but critically, at least 10 committee chairs oppose it.

Supporters are pushing for the legislation to be brought up in the House, where it is expected to pass. 

All In with Chris Hayes, 1/15/14, 9:20 PM ET

Why Democrats may sabotage Obama's Iran deal

Chris takes 16 Senate Democrats to task for siding with the GOP on a potentially catastrophic Iran sanctions bill.
Chris takes 16 Senate Democrats to task for siding with the GOP on a potentially catastrophic Iran sanctions bill.