WASHINGTON — Key senators remained undecided Wednesday on whether to impose more economic sanctions on Iran after Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other administration officials urged them to delay further penalties while negotiations continue over Tehran's nuclear program.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters that he was still weighing the issue, as was Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, aides said. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has previously called for new sanctions, also seemed to dial back his position.
Democratic senators face competing pressures from the administration, which warns that new sanctions could disrupt further negotiations, and Iran hawks who want to tighten sanctions in the hope of securing a tougher deal.
Before entering a closed meeting with the Senate Banking Committee, Kerry said lawmakers needed to "calm down" and hold off on action, lest new sanctions drive Iran from the negotiating table at a time when a deal to limit its nuclear program may be close at hand.
He said sanctions could unravel the coalition of world powers that have imposed sanctions for years in an effort to prevent Iran from furthering its nuclear drive. Many nations fear that Iran wants a nuclear weapons capability, while Tehran insists its program is for peaceful purposes only.
"We are negotiating and the risk is that if Congress were to unilaterally move to raise sanctions, it could break faith with those negotiations and actually stop them and break them apart," Kerry said.
Kerry went to Capitol Hill with Vice President Joe Biden, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and the Treasury Department's sanctions chief, David Cohen. The Senate Democratic leadership as well as the banking committee heard the administration's arguments.
A group of six world powers, including the United States, was unable to seal a preliminary deal with Iran last weekend in Geneva aimed at launching comprehensive negotiations on Tehran's nuclear program. The proposed interim agreement would give Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program. More talks are scheduled next week.
A Treasury Department official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said reports that the proposed deal would give Iran access to $50 billion in frozen assets "are exaggerated and incorrect."
Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intensified his dispute with the Obama administration over Iran policy, arguing in a speech that the choice was not between the pending deal and a march to war, as the White House suggested Tuesday.
"There is a third possibility, and that is continuing the pressure of sanctions," Netanyahu told the Knesset, Israel's parliament. He said "a bad deal," not more sanctions, is liable to lead to war.
Netanyahu, like many members of Congress, fears the White House will accept a deal that is too lenient and is urging stronger sanctions in the hope of making Tehran more willing to yield. He has called the proposed deal a "grievous, historic error."
His tough tactics have set off a debate in Israel and among American pro-Israel organizations about the wisdom of the prime minister splitting sharply with the White House. Some observers say he should not risk being seen as trying to push the United States to war.
Netanyahu argued that the six world powers negotiating with Iran — the U.S., China, Russia, Germany, Britain and France — should take their time while sanctions further weaken the Iranian economy.
"There is no reason to submit to Iranian diktat, nor is there any reason to be hasty," he said. "Iran is under very harsh economic pressure and the advantage is with those applying the pressure."