Obama official: Congress should freeze its Iran penalties

AP News
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Posted: Mar 19, 2015 6:57 PM
Obama official: Congress should freeze its Iran penalties

WASHINGTON (AP) — Obama administration officials told a House committee on Thursday that if a nuclear deal is struck with Iran, lawmakers should leave congressionally imposed sanctions in place for years.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., said that sounded like part of a White House strategy to keep Congress out of the process for years. Lawmakers wary of Iran are pushing to weigh in on any prospective deal and impose new penalties on Tehran.

The administration argues that congressional action now would scuttle delicate international negotiations underway in Switzerland to reach an agreement that would prevent Iran from being able to develop nuclear weapons.

"If we are able to secure a comprehensive understanding, we will structure the nuclear-related sanctions relief in a way that is phased, proportionate and reversible," said Adam Szubin, acting undersecretary of treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence. "We will need to see verified steps on Iran's part before sanctions are lifted and we believe that powerful U.S. legislative sanctions should not be terminated for years to come so that we continue to retain important leverage years into a deal."

He said if a deal is not reached, the administration would work with Congress to ratchet up sanctions pressure on Iran.

Royce pushed back, saying Secretary of State John Kerry has said that any agreement would have to pass muster with Congress.

"Yet that commitment has been muddied by the administration's insistence in recent weeks that Congress will not play a role. And that's not right," Royce said. "Congress built the sanctions structure that brought Iran to the table and if the president moves to dismantle it, we will have a say."

Royce said it seems as if the Obama administration plans to push the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution to "basically bless" this agreement and relax sanctions. "But at the same time, you are pushing off Congress. Why push for U.N. action and not Congress?"

New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the committee, also defended Congress' role if the U.S. signs any agreement.

"There really cannot be any marginalization of Congress. Congress really needs to play a very active and vital role in this whole process and any attempts to sidestep Congress will be resisted on both sides of the aisle," Engel said.

Tony Blinken, deputy secretary of state, said the administration is not "pushing off" Congress.

"Congress will have to exercise its authority to lift sanctions at the end of an agreement if Iran complies," Blinken said. "And indeed, keeping that until the end — until we see that Iran is compiling, is the best way to sustain leverage."

Royce and Engel said 360 House Republicans and Democrats — more than enough to override any presidential veto — sent a letter to Obama saying if an agreement is reached, Congress will decide on easing sanctions it has imposed.

"Congress must be convinced that its terms foreclose any pathway to a bomb, and only then will Congress be able to consider permanent sanctions relief," the lawmakers said.

Across the Capitol, Sens. Bob Corker and Robert Menendez, chairman and top Democrat of the Foreign Relations Committee, said the committee will vote April 14 on legislation giving Congress a say on any Iran deal. The White House has threatened a veto.