A senior Senate Democrat on Wednesday accused the State Department of siding with Iran and not the U.S. Congress, by defending its ongoing work on a nuclear deal that many say is only giving Iran more time to develop nuclear weapons.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that State does not support any new sanctions bill against Iran, even one that only kicks in if Iran fails to agree to a deal this spring limiting its nuclear capabilities.
Blinken also told the committee that State doesn't even support letting Congress have a vote on any possible deal once it's reached. In both cases, Blinken said interference from Congress could prompt Iran to have second thoughts about further negotiations.
That prompted Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) to criticize State of caring more about what Iran thinks than what Congress thinks. "The more I hear from the administration and its quotes, the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran," he said.
Both Menendez and Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) are thought to be looking at legislative options to ensure the Obama administration doesn't reach a deal that goes too soft on Iran. That is expected to include a new bill that calls for tougher sanctions just in case no deal to limit Iran's nuclear capacity is reached.
Menendez was incredulous that State would oppose any sanctions bill, even one designed to only kick in after the talks have failed, because it would upset Iran too much.
"You're telling the committee then… that prospective sanctions that don't take place until July… and would only take place if a deal has not been consummated, and even with presidential waivers at that period of time, is somehow going to make the Ayatollah walk away from a deal that he thinks is in his country's or his best interest to have anyhow?" Menendez.
"That's tough to believe in," he said. "It defies common sense."
Blinken's comments, however, match those made by President Barack Obama on Tuesday night during his State of the Union address, when he called on Congress to abandon any new effort to impose sanctions against Iran.
"New sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; making it harder to maintain sanctions; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again," Obama said Tuedsay night. "It doesn't make sense."
In addition to new sanctions, Corker has said he is considering legislation that would give Congress the right to accept or reject any Iran nuclear deal reached by the administration. Corker pressed Blinken on whether Congress should have any ability at all to weigh in on the final deal, and was told that the State Department doesn't want Congress involved.
"From where I sit now, I think you'll also understand the position of the administration — for that matter, any administration, Republican or Democrat — on the importance of maintaining the executive prerogative to conclude agreements that advance our national security interest and do not require formal congressional approval," Blinken said.
"There is concern that this could set a precedent for future executive branch action," he added. Blinken went on to explain that the Iran deal would be unique and not like other agreements that have been considered by Congress.
After a few minutes, Corker interrupted by saying, "So if I could, I think the answer is no."
Blinken added that knowing a congressional vote was coming up on the deal could make it harder to reach that deal, and said avoiding a vote is also helpful because many who may have opposed the seven-month delay in the talks late last year may now support that decision. He said that's an example of how the views of Congress can change over time.
But Corker one-upped Blinken by saying he'd be fine with holding several votes on the deal if that would help. "I would support a series of votes, if that's what you're saying," Corker said.