A group of 14 Democratic and Republican US senators said on Thursday they would work together on legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran over the coming weeks, and work to pass it as quickly as possible.
"A nuclear weapons capable Iran presents a grave threat to the national security of the United States and its allies and we are committed to preventing Iran from acquiring this capability," they said.
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Among the senior lawmakers issuing the statement were Democrats Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Charles Schumer, the November 3 Democrat in the Senate, as well as Republican Senators Bob Corker, the top Republican on the foreign relations panel and John McCain, a member of the Foreign Relations and Senate Armed Services committees.
The Democratic-led Senate signaled Thursday it would only give US President Barack Obama until next month before pressing ahead with new Iran sanctions, and a key Republican introduced legislation designed to limit the president's future negotiating ability with Tehran.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he backed the negotiations to curb Iran's nuclear program, but warned the Iranians could prevent any successful deal from emerging without the threat of new oil and financial penalties. He said the Senate must move forward with new sanctions after returning from a two-week recess next month.
"I will support a bill that would broaden the scope of our current petroleum sanctions, place limitations on trade with strategic sectors of the Iranian economy that support its nuclear ambitions, as well as pursue those who divert goods to Iran," Reid told fellow senators. "While I support the administration's diplomatic effort, I believe we need to leave our legislative options open to act on a new, bipartisan sanctions bill in December, shortly after we return."
The Republican-led House passed additional sanctions against Iran in July and has been waiting for the Senate to act. But Obama up to now has convinced Reid and many other senators to hold off on new sanctions while world powers try to conclude an interim agreement with Iran.
An accord may be reached in Geneva in the coming days. It would provide Iran with $6 billion to $10 billion in sanctions relief if it agrees to suspend elements of its nuclear program, according to congressional aides. Tehran insists its program is for peaceful energy production and medical research purposes, while the U.S. and many other countries suspect it may be trying to develop atomic weapons.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she hoped Reid would give world powers "the space they need" for future negotiations as well. The administration says any new sanctions right now could scuttle the diplomatic effort.
Several Democrat and Republican senators have voiced displeasure with the parameters of a potential agreement, arguing that the US and its partners are offering too much for Iranian action that stops short of a full freeze on uranium enrichment.
On Thursday, the Republicans' top member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee proposed a bill mapping out what a final agreement should look like and seeking to restrict Obama's capacity to offer sanctions relief.
"Many of us have concerns that an interim agreement in Geneva will diminish US leverage without Iran meeting its existing international obligations," Sen. Bob Corker said.
The legislation gives Obama 240 days to conclude the deal and says he can only suspend restrictions on Iran if he certifies that such action advances US national security interests and that Iran is fully complying with existing agreements. It says any final agreement must compel Iran to end all uranium enrichment activity, a condition the Islamic republic has steadfastly rejected and one which US negotiators have long conceded.
The State Department's Psaki said no one would agree to a final pact that "does not address the big issues" of Iran's enriched uranium stockpiles and plutonium production and the need for greater inspections. But any indication right now that the United States isn't committed to diplomacy would be "unhelpful," she warned.
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