WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama says the likelihood is very high that nuclear negotiations with Iran would collapse if Congress moves forward with new sanctions. He says he'll veto a sanctions bill if it comes to his desk.
Obama is urging members of Congress including Democrats not to pursue new sanctions while talks are underway. He says there's no good argument for undermining the negotiations.
"Congress needs to show patience," Obama told a joint news conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron, adding that new sanctions would "jeopardize the possibility of... providing a diplomatic solution to one of the most difficult and long-lasting national security problems that we've faced in a very long time."
Cameron also spoke out against calls for further sanctions on Iran, saying negotiations needed "space" to succeed.
"We remain absolutely committed to ensuring that Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapon," Cameron said.
"The best way to achieve that now is to create the space for negotiations to succeed. We should not impose further sanctions now."
Obama says if the talks collapse, there will be no constraint on Iran moving ahead with its nuclear program. He says Iran will be able to blame the U.S. for blowing up the deal, and other countries will see it that way as well.
Many U.S. lawmakers want more sanctions to keep up pressure on Iran. Negotiators face a March target date to reach a framework accord.
“I am asking Congress to hold off because our negotiators, our partners, those who are most intimately involved in this assess that it would jeopardize” the talks, Obama said. “My main message to Congress is just hold your fire.”
Some members of Congress are pressing to strengthen sanctions against Iran. One of those lawmakers, Democratic Senator Bob Casey, said this week he expects there will be a vote on sanctions before the July deadline for the nuclear talks. That, he said, would help maintain pressure on Iran.
Cameron said he called several U.S. lawmakers Friday morning and planned to contact more. U.K. officials said he planned to talk with three Republican senators, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, and Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican who said in November it was “critical” for Congress to enact tougher sanctions on Iran.
Brian Rogers, a McCain spokesman, declined to comment on any appeal from Cameron or on Obama’s request that Congress hold off on new sanctions.
The collapse of talks between Iran and six world powers could increase the risk of a military conflict while setting off an arms race in the Middle East, Obama said.
Obama and Cameron said that if the current round of negotiations fails -- Obama put the odds at 50-50 -- then new sanctions could be imposed. A separate action by the U.S. would undercut support from other nations that do business with Iran, Obama said.
Iran initially was given limited relief from the U.S. sanctions from Jan. 20 to July 20, 2014, and it was extended until this July as negotiations over its nuclear program continued. U.S. and European sanctions have curbed foreign investment and hindered exports of the Persian Gulf state’s oil, its most important source of revenue.
Talks between Iran and the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia are scheduled to resume next week.
The existing sanctions regime has already hobbled Iran’s economy and cut its crude output to the lowest since 1990. The collapse of oil prices to near 5 1/2-year lows has added bite. Iran’s oil revenues have declined by $100 billion over the past three years, according to Mohsen Rezai, secretary of the nation’s Expediency Council, a supervisory body.
Corker the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he and other lawmakers are drafting a measure to give Congress a right to "vote up or down" on any agreement, a prerogative it currently does not have.
Other lawmakers in both parties are drafting a measure relating to tougher penalties against Iran if it does not give up uranium enrichment as part of any accord. Separately, the Senate Banking Committee has announced a hearing for next week on the "strategic necessity" of sanctions.
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