New Iran leader sharpens Obama-Congress conflict

The election of a more moderate president in Iran has sharpened the conflict between the White House and Congress over Tehran’s disputed nuclear development program.

The Obama administration, which hopes to meet incoming President Hassan Rouhani’s team in September to renew efforts aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear activities, last week announced an easing of sanctions on medical supplies, farm products and humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, the House appears close to passing a tough new sanctions measure aimed at further cutting Iran’s oil exports – which have already fallen 50 percent – and some senators would like to see a similar bill introduced in their chamber in the next few weeks.

The move by the White House marked an abrupt shift after several years in which U.S. officials have imposed layer upon layer of sanctions in hopes of dissuading Tehran from pursuing a program that the West fears is aimed at developing nuclear weapons and that Iran says is solely for civilian purposes.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other officials are urging Congress to hold off on new sanctions before expected international nuclear talks, warning of the risk of alienating new leaders who might be willing to give diplomacy a chance.

Some governments and private experts believe Iran could be a year or less away from being able to make a nuclear weapon, although the Obama administration believes the threshold is not that close.

Some lawmakers, meanwhile, are stepping up their rhetoric. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would introduce legislation seeking authorization for use of force against Iran unless it curbs its nuclear activities.

“The only way to convince Iran to halt their nuclear program is to make it clear we will take it out,” Graham told the group Christians United for Israel on Tuesday.

Some lawmakers fear the White House could become bogged down in more fruitless rounds of negotiations with Iran. They suspect Rouhani is committed to forging ahead with the program even as he talks of reducing conflict with the West. The former nuclear negotiator, whose inauguration is scheduled for Aug. 4, said in the recent election campaign that he would “pursue a promise of peace and reconciliation.”

One senior congressional aide said it was clear that the Obama administration “is committed to another few months of rope-a-dope negotiations with Iran and opposes any new sanctions during this calendar year. There’s no way Congress waits that long to see Iran change its course.” The aide asked not to be identified.

U.S. officials and private analysts believe Iran wants to return to the bargaining table. But even if it is ready to cooperate – which remains unclear – it could balk if Congress approves new sanctions.

“You could have a train wreck if a draconian new bill is passed during negotiations,” said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist and a former State Department official.

By San Francisco Chronicle


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