The White House warned US lawmakers Tuesday that tightening sanctions on Iran could box America into a “march to war” and derail a diplomatic push to limit Tehran’s atomic program.
The warning marked a significant toughening of President Barack Obama’s stance towards Congress as he prepares to resume high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with Iran later this month.
“The American people do not want a march to war,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
Obama has vowed he will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, but last week intense negotiations in Geneva between Iran and six world powers failed to reach an interim deal to halt its program.
Fresh from the talks, Secretary of State John Kerry heads to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to make the case for continued diplomacy.
Key senators from both parties, some responding to Israel’s denunciation of the proposed agreement, are proposing stiffer sanctions or may curtail Obama’s power to ease current measures, which have crippled the Iranian economy.
But the White House warned that new sanctions could scupper the diplomatic process and leave little option but the use of military force against Tehran’s nuclear program.
Carney said Americans “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 alternative is military action,” Carney said.
“It is important to understand that if pursuing a resolution diplomatically is disallowed or ruled out, what options then do we and our allies have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?”
Republican Senator Mark Kirk, however, argued that sanctions remained the best way to avoid war and ensure Iran did not get nuclear weapons.
“The American people should not be forced to choose between military action and a bad deal that accepts a nuclear Iran,” he said.
White House aides privately say that once war-weary Americans understand the alternative to a deal with Iran means another Middle East conflict, they will warm to Obama’s approach.
Officials have also warned further action at this stage by Congress would strengthen hardliners in Iran opposed to dialogue between new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s envoys and Washington.
Tehran denies Western claims it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
Kerry will take the administration’s position directly to the Senate Banking Committee, which is mulling a new sanctions package.
“The secretary will be clear that putting new sanctions in place would be a mistake,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
“What we are asking for right now is a pause, a temporary pause in sanctions,” she told reporters. “We are not rolling them back.”
The House of Representatives has already passed a bill hardening up the sanctions, but the Senate agreed to delay further action to allow diplomacy a chance to succeed.
Both Republicans and Democrats have grown increasingly skeptical.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said in a USA Today op-ed that new sanctions are a “necessary insurance policy” to ensure Iran negotiates in good faith.
“We cannot substitute wild-eyed hope for clear-eyed pragmatism given Iran’s record of deception,” he said.
And he branded it “incompatible” for Tehran to pursue talks while installing centrifuges and developing a heavy-water reactor.
“Tougher sanctions will serve as an incentive for Iran to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program. When Iran complies, sanctions can be unwound and economic relief will follow,” he said.
An aide to Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson said the senator “will not make a decision on additional sanctions until he has had a chance to consult with his colleagues following the briefing” by Kerry on Wednesday.
The committee’s top Republican, Senator Mike Crapo, has said he wants to “move ahead expeditiously” with a new sanctions regime.
“I don’t see how we should adjust our sanctions policy before there is any progress on the negotiation,” he told Politico last week.
Colin Kahl, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said Congress was warming to the idea that sanctions pressure got Iran to the negotiating table and “more pressure will get them over the goal line.”
But Kahl told reporters that “Congress should be mindful… of doing things that would arm hardliners with the argument that the West isn’t serious” about engaging Iran diplomatically over its nuclear program.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, agreed, saying new sanctions could seriously limit Rouhani’s ability to maintain his “soft position” on the negotiations.
“The hardliners are waiting to destroy him,” Parsi said.
Negotiators “need to strike a deal before the Congress comes out and essentially closes the window of diplomacy.”
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
WATCH: Trump blurts out a massive lie about Dem congresswomen — after being asked about Melania
President Donald Trump on Friday falsely accused Democratic congresswomen of using the phrase "evil Jews."
Trump ignited a firestorm over the weekend after saying that the congresswomen of color should "go back" to their countries of origin. At a rally on Wednesday, his supporters chanted "send her back" after Trump attacked one of them, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN).
But on Friday, Trump insisted the congresswomen were the real racists.
"You know what is racist to me? When somebody goes out and says the horrible things about our country, the people of our country, that are anti-Semitic, that hate everybody, that speak with scorn and hate -- that to me is really a very dangerous thing," Trump said.
Iran says it has seized British oil tanker
Iran's Revolutionary Guards said on Friday they had captured a British-flagged oil tanker in the Gulf after Britain seized an Iranian vessel earlier this month, further raising tensions along a vital international oil shipping route.
Britain said it was urgently seeking information about the Stena Impero after the tanker, which had been heading to a port in Saudi Arabia, suddenly changed course after passing through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf.
The Revolutionary Guards said they seized the tanker at the request of Iranian maritime authorities for "not following international maritime regulations," state television reported.
Former FBI Director James Comey outlines the burning questions he’d ask Robert Mueller
Former FBI Director James Comey has written a lengthy post at the Lawfare blog outlining the most important questions that Democrats need to ask of former special counsel Robert Mueller.
Although many of the questions outlined by Comey are simply asking Mueller to rehash the findings of his final report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, he does ask some questions designed to get Mueller to offer up his own analysis of President Donald Trump's actions, such as, "Did you find substantial evidence that the president had committed obstruction of justice crimes?" and "Did you reach a judgment as to whether the president had committed obstruction of justice crimes?"