The Obama administration is considering easing sanctions on Iran without approval from Congress in order to move closer to a nuclear deal, the New York Times reported Sunday.
In this handout photo provided by the White House, President Barack Obama speaks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Getty Images)
The Treasury Department, in a detailed report not released to the public, determined the president can suspend the majority of economic sanctions without getting congressional approval.
“We wouldn’t seek congressional legislation in any comprehensive agreement for years,” a senior administration official told the Times.
Any sanction suspension would be temporary, however: It would take an act of Congress to permanently scrap the sanctions.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz on Monday called the Times story "wrong." He said the only question is when and how congress should take an up or down vote.
"The notion that we are trying to avoid congressional consultation and input on this is preposterous," Schultz told reporters. "This is an issue where we talk to Congress intensively. We will continue to consult with Congress heavily."
Schultz added, "It's way too early to speculate on which sanctions will require legislative versus executive action to suspend or lift."
It’s far from certain a deal could be reached between Iran and the five countries it is negotiating with — the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — about the number of centrifuges Iran could have; where inspectors could go; and under what conditions the sanctions – that have cut Iran’s oil revenue and been rough on its banks – would be lifted.
American intelligence officials are worried Iran would turn to covert production of nuclear energy if a deal is reached, either buying from North Korea or producing it in secret tunnels.
“We have not seen much lately,” a senior intelligence official told the Times. “But over the past 10 years, we’ve uncovered three covert programs in Iran, and there’s no reason to think there’s not a fourth out there.”
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) pointed out the increased sanctions were passed by Congress in 2010.
“Congress will not permit the president to unilaterally unravel Iran sanctions that passed the Senate in a 99 to 0 vote,” Kirk said.
White House officials said the policy has always been a step-by-step suspension of sanctions. That’s so long as Iran’s government understands that Obama can restart sanctions at any time if the International Atomic Energy Agency is unable verify whether Iran is holding up its end of the deal.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has sponsored legislation to tighten sanctions if no agreement is reached with Iran by late November. He had concerns about a unilateral move.
“If a potential deal does not substantially and effectively dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear weapons program, I expect Congress will respond,” Menendez said. “An agreement cannot allow Iran to be a threshold nuclear state.”
Editor's note: This post was updated to include comment from White House spokesman Eric Schultz.