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WASHINGTON — Amid intense pressure from the White House, the top Democrat behind legislation to impose additional sanctions on Iran said Tuesday he will temporarily withdraw his support for the bill, giving international negotiations more time to succeed.

Days before the Senate Banking Committee is expected to vote on a new sanctions bill introduced by Sens. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Menendez said he and fellow Democrats have written to President Barack Obama to say they will vote for the measure only if talks don’t produce a framework for a new agreement by March 24. The move effectively kills any chances that the bill will pass before then.

The decision comes amid political wrangling over the status of negotiations between Iran and six international powers, including the U.S. The talks are aimed at forging a permanent agreement with Iran that would ease international sanctions in exchange for restricting Iran’s nuclear program.

This month, British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged he was lobbying key senators to back off the sanctions bill. He and the president warned at a joint news conference that the Kirk-Menendez legislation could derail any chances, slim as they might be, for the Iran talks to succeed.

In his State of the Union address last week, Obama reiterated his threat to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.

The next day, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced he had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in March, where the Israeli leader is expected to call for tougher sanctions against Iran. Netanyahu accepted the invitation in apparent violation of diplomatic protocol by not coordinating first with the White House, casting a partisan shadow over the issue and leading some Democrats to have second thoughts about supporting the bill.

Speaking at a preliminary hearing on the bill Tuesday, Menendez made no mention of why he was now backing off his legislation, albeit temporarily. But he said he remains skeptical that the talks will succeed and warned that new sanctions may be inevitable.

“The fact is that negotiators are now in their 18th month of talking,” Menendez said. “Iran is procrastinating because the longer the negotiations last, the further the [international coalition] moves in their direction. … Without prospective sanctions that are ready to be implemented, our only option may very well be what some of my friends are worried about – either a military one or accepting Iran as a nuclear weapons state. Neither are desirable.”

Obama and Menendez clashed at a private meeting earlier this month with Senate Democrats. Menendez told reporters the next day that he “can’t fathom for the life of me” why the White House opposes his legislation, which would only impose new sanctions if talks didn’t succeed by negotiators’ own deadline, and would give the president power to delay them if talks were nearing a breakthrough.

“In my view we need Iran to understand that there are consequences if they fail to reach a comprehensive agreement,” Menendez said Tuesday.

Despite Menendez’s announcement, Senate Republicans may still press ahead with the bill. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker is also planning to introduce legislation that would require any final agreement to be submitted to Congress for a vote of approval.

“I think we’re all searching for the right way for the Senate and Congress to weigh in,” Corker said Tuesday.


©2015 Tribune Co.

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Topics: t000047685,t000002953,t000047684,t000047683,t000047682,t000047680,g000362667,g000218065,g000362686



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