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Congress Is Hedging Iran Won’t Honor Any Nuke Deal with US as Deadline Looms

Senate, still antsy about forthcoming deal, votes on non-binding proposal to reinstate sanctions, if Iran reneges on terms.

by Liz Fields
Mar 27 2015, 10:12pm

Photo by Jim Bourg/AP

Congress still has ants in its pants about Obama's still-inchoate nuclear accord with Iran, and its members are gearing up to cushion any potential bad deal struck between the world powers while continuing to fight the president on his proposal tooth and nail.

Just days from the looming deadline for P5+1 countries to draft a nuclear framework agreement with Iran aimed at freezing its uranium enrichment program for a decade, the US Senate unanimously passed a non-binding amendment to a budget resolution on Thursday, which would allow Congress to slap Iran with more sanctions or reimpose old ones if it backtracks on the terms of any deal struck.

The amendment, passed 100-0, would form a fund to bear the cost of imposing more sanctions on Iran. It was just one of dozens voted on during a marathon all-nighter session to form a budget blueprint, which won't actually become law. Though it has no legislative standing, the amendment sent a political message — the latest of many to come out of the heated nuclear deliberations.

Mark Kirk, the Republican Illinois senator who co-sponsored the amendment with Democrat Robert Menendez from New Jersey, did not answer VICE News' request for comment Friday, but sent a statement saying, "the unanimous vote for the Kirk-Brown amendment signals the Senate's strong support for the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill, which stands ready now for a full Senate vote."

"Iran is a theocratic dictatorship that sponsors and exports terrorism, egregiously violates human rights, has worked with terrorists to kill more Americans than the Islamic State, and now has a decades-long record of cheating to get nuclear weapons-making capability," the senator added as background to his statement.

Related: Congress Sent Another Letter Barging Into Obama's Nuclear Negotiations With Iran

Kirk and Menendez previously co-authored the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, aimed at expanding sanctions to halt the country's nuclear weapons development — legislation Obama has vowed on a number of occasions to veto, if necessary, to prevent Congress from interfering in the delicate negotiations process.

Earlier this week, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated calls for a Senate vote on the bill if a preliminary deal doesn't materialize by the US's month-end deadline. A June 30 deadline has been set for a more comprehensive agreement.

At the same time that senators decisively voted in favor of the budget amendment Thursday, details of the negotiations currently underway in Lausanne, Switzerland emerged. The particulars indicate that one option the US is considering could potentially allow Tehran to operate hundreds of centrifuges in an underground bunker, in exchange for restrictions on centrifuge operations and nuclear weapons-building work at other facilities.

Western officials involved in the highly-sensitive negotiations told the Associated Press the centrifuges would be allowed to run for a year at Iran's fortified Fordo site, and would be used to separate elements used in medical, science, or industrial research, but not to enrich uranium — a critical component of nuclear weapons.

The unnamed officials said the trade-off deal is just one of several options currently on the table. But experts have raised concerns the centrifugal technology could be repurposed for uranium enrichment activity.

A deal that would maintain technology at Fordo "keeps the infrastructure in place and keeps a leg up, if they want to restart (uranium) enrichment operations," David Albright of Washington's Institute for Security and International Security told the AP.

The US State Department did not respond to VICE News's request to verify the possible terms Friday.

Related: 'I'm Embarrassed for Them': Obama Hits Back at Republican Senators' Letter to Iran Over Nuclear Deal

Meanwhile, Obama has continued to receive congressional pushback on the nuclear deal from both sides of the floor. Last week, 367 House reps, 129 of them Democrats, addressed a letter to the commander-in-chief demanding that any agreement reached with Iran must "foreclose any pathway to a bomb" before Congress would agree to lift sanctions.

"Should an agreement with Iran be reached, permanent relief from congressionally-mandated sanctions would require new legislation," the House members wrote. "In reviewing such an agreement, 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 letter came two weeks after 47 Republican senators wrote in an open letter to Iran's supreme leader that any arrangements made with the US would not outlast Obama's presidency, which ends next year. Reaction to that letter has ranged from praise from the right hailing the senators as "patriots," to a scathing assessment of the authors as traitors.

Obama himself said he was "embarrassed" for the senators in an interview with VICE News, while other democrats have indicated the foreign policy go-around was dangerous and actually brought Republicans closer to hardliners in Iran also opposed to a deal.

The continued political maneuvers and opposition to the deal could partly be guided by public opinion, with 59 percent of Americans viewing a nuclear deal as a threat to the US, according to Pew stats. Another poll found that 62 percent were suspicious of Iran's intentions and believed its leaders were not serious about ending its uranium enrichment program.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields