WASHINGTON Key Democratic U.S. senators said on Tuesday they would put off supporting new Iran sanctions for at least two months, after a threat by President Barack Obama to veto a bill he said could scuttle talks with Tehran over its nuclear program.
With Republicans holding 54 seats in the 100-member chamber and needing 67 votes to override a veto, they would need significant support from Obama's fellow Democrats to pass the bill against Obama's wishes.
The co-author of legislation to tighten the sanctions, Senator Robert Menendez, said he and other Democrats would not back passage of the bill unless talks between world powers and Iran failed to produce a framework agreement by March 24.
Obama has pledged to veto any bill imposing new sanctions, which are strongly supported by Republicans, passed while the talks between Tehran and major powers go on.
After more than 18 months of negotiations, the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia have agreed with Iran to try to reach a political understanding by the end of March, with a view to a full-blown deal by a self-imposed June 30 deadline.
Menendez said he and nine other Democratic senators had sent a letter to Obama saying they would not back a new sanctions bill in the full Senate before March 24.
Menendez told a Senate Banking Committee hearing that he and his Democratic colleagues still hoped for a diplomatic solution but were "deeply skeptical" about Iran's willingness to make concessions that would allow a deal by the deadline.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes but Washington and others fear it is covertly seeking the capacity to build a bomb.
The Banking panel, which oversees sanctions legislation in the Senate, is still expected to vote on Thursday on a bill co-authored by Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk.
TORPEDO THE TALKS
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the Senate committee hearing that he had not seen the letter, but was amenable to Menendez's plan. "We appreciate the recognition that our negotiators could use additional time and space," he said.
Four leading European foreign policy officials warned last Thursday in an opinion piece in The Washington Post that new sanctions legislation against Iran could torpedo efforts to secure a long-term agreement.
The bill would impose sanctions on Iran only if it fails to reach a comprehensive agreement by June 30. It also includes provisions that would allow Obama to waive the requirement for new sanctions to provide additional negotiating flexibility.
The Iran issue took on a strongly partisan tone in Washington last week when Republican leaders announced that they had invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on Iran, without consulting the Obama administration or congressional Democrats.
The speech by Netanyahu, who is deeply skeptical of the Iran nuclear talks, is scheduled for March 3, well before the March 24 deadline.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, asked whether the administration might drop its opposition to extra sanctions if no framework deal were reached with Iran by the end of March said, "We can discuss that at that point."
Democratic members of the banking panel who backed the new sanctions said they would vote for the bill when it comes before the committee on Thursday, but would wait until March to see if there is a deal before pushing ahead in the full Senate.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would make a decision on the timing of a vote on the bill in the full chamber only after it was passed by the committee.
Iran and the major powers are due to meet again in February after limited progress in talks in Geneva on Jan. 18.
(Additional reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Bill Trott, David Storey and Howard Goller)