President Obama and the White House have been engaged in a battle in the Senate to block the chamber from passing new sanctions that could derail ongoing negotiations with Iran. The White House has been clear: new sanctions could kill the talks and put the U.S. on a "path to war."
Groups including NIAC, FCNL, Peace Action, Americans for Peace Now, J Street, and International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran have all come out against new Senate sanctions. Groups including AIPAC and Foundation for Defense of Democracies are, as usual, advocating more sanctions. AIPAC even says they will explicitly try to kill a deal.
But it looks like the pro-diplomacy side is winning.
Senators Carl Levin, Christopher Murphy, and Dianne Feinstein have all now come out in opposition to new Iran sanctions, saying they will instead support the ongoing negotiations with Iran. And today, even Senator John McCain (R-AZ) told the BBC today he will not support new sanctions for now, saying, "I am skeptical of talks with Iran but willing to give the Obama administration a couple months."
Here are the three Senators who are leading the charge to protect diplomacy from a new sanctions push:
Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: "Whether it is a 10%, 40% or 60% chance [that the change is real], it should be tested and probed. We should not at this time impose additional sanctions."
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: "I am baffled by the insistence of some senators to undermine the P5+1 talks. I will continue to support these negotiations and oppose any new sanctions as long as we are making progress toward a genuine solution."
Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT), Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "At this critical juncture in these negotiations when Iran may be on the verge of making serious concessions regarding its nuclear program, I worry it would be counterproductive for Congress to authorize a new round of sanctions, diminishing American leverage and weakening the hands of Secretary Kerry and his counterparts in the P5+1."
While the House of Representatives voted in support of new sanctions just days before Rouhani's inauguration, a recent letter calling for the Senate to support new sanctions drew less than half as many supporters as a previous letter supporting diplomacy and calling for sanctions to be traded in for Iranian nuclear concessions.
Now, it is now up to the Senate to decide whether to pass a sanctions bill opposed by the White House. The chamber has yet to advance their own bill despite prodding from hawks like Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The most likely path for the new sanctions was the National Defense Authorization Act, expected to be on the Senate floor next week. But with the two Senators who will manage the bill - Levin and McCain - now opposed to adding sanctions, U.S. negotiators are likely to have more space to conduct talks and secure a framework for a deal without Congressional interference.
If the sanctions can successfully be paused, the next battle looms: Will Congress be able to accept a good deal that puts constraints on Iran's nuclear program to protect against weaponization in exchange for sanctions relief? Or will they set unrealistic Bush-era demands, such as that Iran completely end even civilian nuclear work, to scuttle the talks? Stay tuned.