WASHINGTON— With negotiations set to resume with Iran over its nuclear program this week, President Obama tried to reassure Senate committee leaders on Tuesday and made his personal case for Congress to hold off on enacting new sanctions while negotiations continue.
Obama spent two hours with the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate armed services, banking, foreign relations and intelligence committees and walked the lawmakers through the parameters of interim deal that negotiators from the P5+1 (U.S., Russia, China, United Kingdom, France and Germany) are pursuing in talks in Geneva.
The U.S. and its allies are hoping to get Iran, which has faced years of crippling economic sanctions, to agree to give up some of its nuclear activity in exchange for some relief on sanctions.
After the meeting with lawmakers, Obama said he was unsure if a deal was in the offing in the coming days. But he underscored that any deal would include the Iran agreeing to "roll back some elements (in their nuclear program) that would get them closer to..breakout capacity." Tehran also would subject themselves to even more vigorous inspections, Obama said. In return, Iran would receive a "modest" amount of sanctions relief that would be subject to reinstatement if they violated the agreement.
"What we are suggesting…let's look, let's test the proposition that over the next six months that we can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion, while maintaining the essential sanctions architecture and, as president of the United States, me maintaining all options to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons," Obama said at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council. "I think that is a test worth conducting."
The meeting comes as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as Israel and France, have shown increasing skepticism over the Obama administration's negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
Obama was joined by Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice to brief the lawmakers.
"They were very explicit about what they think they may be able to achieve," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the meeting.
The White House has declined to publicly detail sanctions relief it is considering giving Iran as part of a potential interim agreement but has said that reports suggesting the relief could amount to as much $50 billion in relief are greatly exaggerated
"The President noted that the relief we are considering as a first step would be limited, temporary and reversible, and emphasized we will continue to enforce sanctions during the six-month period," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. "He indicated that new sanctions should not be enacted during the current negotiation but that they would be most effective as a robust response if Iran should not accept the P5+1 proposal or should Iran fail to follow through on its commitments."
Corker said that some lawmakers who participated in the meeting were "satisfied" and some were "very unsatisfied" with what the president and his aides had to say.
"People are concerned…that we're giving up some leverage," Corker said.
He added, "I think the concern is whatever you do on the interim basis becomes the new norm."
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., has said he would consider another round of sanctions, but that he wants to wait before deciding on whether to move forward until he hears from the administration. Republican lawmakers—including Marco Rubio of Florida, Mark Kirk of Illinois, John Cornyn of Texas and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — have been among the most skeptical of the negotiations
Senators who want new sanctions won't have a chance to offer amendments before Thanksgiving because of a procedural maneuver by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Corker said. But Corker said that it's possible some lawmakers could announce new sanction proposals in the coming days.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers warned the administration against accepting a deal that would roll back economic sanctions without Iran taking significant steps.
"We feel strongly that any easing of sanctions along the lines that the P5+1 is reportedly considering should require Iran to roll back its nuclear program more significantly than now envisioned," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.
The letter was signed by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Lindsey Graham, R-.S.C.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; John McCain, R-Ariz., Bob Casey, R-Pa.; and Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke with Iran President Hasan Rouhani by telephone on Wednesday. The call marked the first time in a decade that a British premier and Iranian president have directly communicated.
Obama and Rouhani held a 15-minute call in September, marking the highest level communication between the two countries in three decades.