WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is pleading with Congress to allow more time for diplomacy with Iran, but faces sharp resistance from Republican and Democratic lawmakers determined to further squeeze the Iranian economy and wary of yielding any ground in nuclear negotiations.
Back from a week of nuclear talks in Geneva and tense consultations with nervous Middle East allies, Secretary of State John Kerry was to join Vice President Joe Biden in presenting the administration's case to their ex-colleagues in the Senate on Wednesday and ask them to hold off on a package of new, tougher Iran sanctions under consideration.
A House committee, meanwhile, held a hearing to vent its frustration with Kerry and an Obama administration they believe should adopt a far tougher line with Tehran.
"The Iranian regime hasn't paused its nuclear program," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman. "Why should we pause our sanctions efforts as the administration is pressuring Congress to do?"
President Barack Obama's disagreement with many if not most members of Congress concerns tactics, not substance: Each wants to stop Iran from reaching the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, and even hard-line hawks say they'd prefer diplomacy to U.S. military intervention. Almost everyone recognizes that Washington and its partners will have to offer some relief from the punitive measures that have crippled Iran's economy in exchange for concrete Iranian actions to roll back and dismantle elements of the nuclear program.
But the road map for achieving what has been a central U.S. foreign policy goal for more than a decade is hotly politicized, with fierce debate over the parameters and sequencing of any deal. The Obama administration has offered Iran an initial opportunity to recoup some of the billions of dollars in frozen overseas assets if it begins the process, while insisting that the most severe restrictions would remain in place until Tehran conclusively eliminates fears that it is trying to assemble an atomic arsenal. Some legislators worry Obama is moving too quickly.
Iran maintains that its uranium enrichment is for energy production and medical research, not for any covert military objective. But until the recent election of President Hassan Rouhani, it refused to compromise in talks with world powers.
Responding to Rouhani's promise of flexibility, Obama has staked significant international credibility on securing a diplomatic agreement. His telephone chat with Rouhani in September was the first direct conversation between U.S. and Iranian leaders in more than three decades. The unprecedented outreach has angered U.S. allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. And lawmakers are deeply skeptical.
"This is a decision to support diplomacy and a possible peaceful resolution to this issue," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday. "The American people justifiably and understandably prefer a peaceful solution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and this agreement, if it's achieved, has the potential to do that. The American people do not want a march to war."
The administration sees itself on the cusp of a historic breakthrough, so much so that Obama hastily dispatched Kerry to Switzerland last week for the highest-level nuclear negotiations to date. The talks broke down as Iran demanded formal recognition of what it says is its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and as France sought stricter limits on Iran's ability to make nuclear fuel and on its heavy water reactor to produce plutonium, according to diplomats.
Still, officials said significant progress was made. The U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany, Iran and Russia will send top nuclear negotiators back to Geneva next week to see whether they can push the ball forward.
But the administration is worried Congress could be making an agreement more difficult.
Kerry and top U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman hope to persuade members of the Senate Banking Committee in their meeting Wednesday to hold off on additional punitive measures on the Iranian economy. After, Biden and the Treasury Department's sanctions chief, David Cohen, will join them for a separate briefing with Senate Democratic leaders.
Kerry "will be clear that putting new sanctions in place would be a mistake," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday. "While we are still determining if there is a diplomatic path forward, what we are asking for right now is a pause, a temporary pause in sanctions. We are not taking away sanctions. We are not rolling them back. This is about ensuring that our legislative strategy and our negotiating strategy are running hand in hand."
The GOP-led House overwhelming approved new Iran sanctions in July. The legislation blacklisted Iran's mining and construction sectors and committed the U.S. to the goal of eliminating all Iranian oil exports worldwide by 2015. Such measures enjoy similarly wide support in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"Tougher sanctions will serve as an incentive for Iran to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program," Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, wrote in a USA Today opinion piece.
Testifying at the House hearing, Mark Dubowitz, an Iran sanctions expert with the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the U.S. offer on the table in Geneva could have provided Iran at least $20 billion in recovered assets. Royce put the total at $50 billion.
"The administration wants a deal too badly," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., adding that "Congress is far more skeptical when it comes to the Iranians than some of the people trying to pursue a deal."
Graham also supported more sanctions, but Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., backed the administration's call for caution.
"I think we ought to not interfere with the negotiations with premature action," Levin said.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.