WASHINGTON — As much as any other foreign policy issue during President Barack Obama's five years in office, the question of Iran sanctions finds him at odds with a hefty portion of his own party's lawmakers, as well as most Republicans.
A bipartisan group of senators is trying to forge agreement on a new sanctions bill that they hope to pass before Christmas.
The administration believes the legislation could scuttle the interim nuclear agreement reached with Iran on Nov. 23 and derail forthcoming negotiations on a permanent deal to ensure that Iran will never be able to build a nuclear weapon.
The administration contends that new sanctions would not only violate the terms of the interim deal — which temporarily freezes Iran's nuclear programs and modestly eases existing sanctions — but also could divide the United States from its international negotiating partners across the table from Iran and give the upper hand to Iranian hard-liners in the talks.
"The purpose of sanctions from the outset was to create a dynamic so that you can get a change in policy from the Iranians," said David Cohen, the Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. "It's not sanctions for the sake of having sanctions."
The White House has been pressing lawmakers not to act. In addition to briefings for anyone who wants one, Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, national security adviser Susan Rice and other top officials are making personal calls. Kerry said he sent a video to his former Capitol Hill colleagues explaining the deal, "because some people are putting out some misinformation on it."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., one of the leading proponents of new sanctions, said he wonders what all the fuss is about.
"From my perspective, it strengthens the administration's hand" and positions the United States "for the possibility that (a permanent) agreement cannot ultimately be struck," Menendez said of a new sanctions bill. "It would make clear to the Iranians if they don't strike a deal, this is what's coming."
"I find it interesting that the Iranians can play good cop, bad cop with 'hard-liners' in their country," he added, while "we can't."