WASHINGTON -- More than a quarter of the Senate defied President Barack Obama on Thursday by introducing legislation that could raise sanctions on Iran, and compel the United States to support Israel if it launches a pre-emptive attack on the Iranian nuclear program.
The bill, sponsored by 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans, sets sanctions that would go into effect if Tehran violates the nuclear deal it reached with world powers last month or lets it expire without a long-term accord. The measures include a global boycott on Iranian oil exports within one year and the blacklisting of Iran's mining, engineering and construction industries.
The goal, according to supporters, is to strengthen the negotiating leverage of the Obama administration as it seeks to pressure Iran into a comprehensive agreement next year that would eliminate the risk of the Islamic republic developing nuclear weapons. But it could also create added complications for U.S. negotiators, who promised Iran no new economic sanctions for the duration of the six-month interim pact that was finalized on Nov. 24 in Geneva.
"Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who spearheaded the effort with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Kirk called the draft law "an insurance policy to defend against Iranian deception."
The Obama administration has furiously lobbied Congress not to impose new sanctions, even on a conditional basis, saying the increased economic pressure could force Iran to withdraw from the negotiating process and strain ties between the United States and its key negotiating partners -- Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. Washington is banking on these countries to persuade Tehran into accepting a final package that would ease trade, financial and oil restrictions if the country severely rolls back its uranium enrichment activity and other elements of its nuclear program.
Iran's foreign minister also has said new sanctions could scuttle hopes of a diplomatic resolution. Iran maintains its program is solely for peaceful energy production and medical research purposes, but the United States and many other countries harbor severe doubts. Israel is perhaps most adamant in insisting Iran's true intentions are to develop an atomic weapons arsenal.
A Senate vote won't happen until January at the earliest and it's unclear if the bill will have enough support. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has effectively blocked the issue from being addressed before legislators adjourn for 2013. Obama has yet to veto any legislation during his presidency, and his aides have refused to say if a sanctions bill that they see in violation of the spirit of the Geneva agreement would prompt such action.