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As negotiators ready for Iran talks, Obama asks Congress not to step up pressure

November 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama urged Congress to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran while negotiations over that nation's nuclear program are in progress. Margaret Warner joins Gwen Ifill to offer insight on the factors influencing lawmakers, including distrust of Iran, worries about maintaining leverage and pressure from Israel.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama also used his news conference today to warn Congress against imposing new sanctions on Iran while diplomatic options remain.

As the U.S. negotiating team prepares to return to Geneva for a third round of talks next week, administration officials say they can still force Iran to freeze its nuclear program.

At the White House, the president said no new sanctions are needed.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If in fact we’re serious about trying to resolve this diplomatically, because no matter how good our military is, military options are always messy, are always difficult, then there is no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective and that brought them to the table in the first place.

GWEN IFILL: The behind-the-scenes struggle between the White House and Congress could drive the outcome of the Geneva talks.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner says it’s been quite a vigorous one.

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Margaret, behind the scenes, it seem like what is the president is trying to do, as he was with health care today, is mollify the Democrats.

MARGARET WARNER: That is one of his main problems, Gwen. There’s strong sentiment on the Hill to step up pressure on Iran during these talks.

And it’s coming not just from Republicans, but from some leading Democrats, like Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Menendez. The two scenarios are, they would either impose new sanctions, or, as Senator Bob Corker, Republican, wants to do, strip the president of his ability to waive even existing sanctions under existing law.

The administration says, if that happens, President Obama will have nothing left to deal on Geneva next week. His negotiators won’t, because even the modest easing they’re proposing, that they proposed last week, say, unblocking some funds that is Iranian money held in foreign accounts, he can’t do if his hands are tied on the waivers. So that’s why you saw a full-court press this week, Vice President Biden, Secretary Kerry up on the Hill in private briefings.

GWEN IFILL: And they were saying — and they were saying we weren’t — sorry — that we weren’t lifting oil sanctions, we aren’t lifting banking sanctions.

So what is driving the objections to even the potential of a deal?

MARGARET WARNER: I would say distrust on two fronts, distrust of Iran, given its long record of deception — and there is such a record in negotiations — and distrust of the administration, or a mistrust, that this administration is so eager for a deal, that it is ready to give away leverage.

And the final factor is definite pressure from Israel, from Prime Minister Netanyahu, from Israel’s friends on the Hill and outside of the Hill to not head down the slippery slope of easing any sanctions until you get a deal that ends all, all Iranian enrichment.

GWEN IFILL: Is anything that the president said, his statement that we just played at the White House, is this getting any kind of traction among the people who clearly were his target audience?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, he said what Secretary Kerry was saying also yesterday in this private briefing…


MARGARET WARNER: … which is — you know, which is, look, it’s not only that they’re not necessary; it’s that it will undercut our ability to pursue diplomacy, and that that’s a dangerous step to go down, and that we are really negotiating a tough deal.

This is what Secretary Kerry was saying privately, but that if you do this to us, it will undercut Iranian President Rouhani at home against his hard-liners, and it will shake the confidence of both the Iranians and our own allies that this president has the power to make a deal.

From what I heard from members in that meeting — Senator Bob Corker, I spoke to late yesterday — he said, it was totally frustrating and disappointing, totally unsatisfying. He said it was 80 percent emotion, only 20 percent details, that they’re — that — that Secretary Kerry’s attitude was, trust us, we’re negotiating a tough deal, and didn’t give us any detail.

And Senator Menendez said, in more restrained language, much the same today.

GWEN IFILL: So, nothing — the ball has not moved. But they’re still listening to, as you pointed out, people from abroad who are calling, and they’re still listening to who else?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, there is — right now, I think the dynamic is, there’s a very short time fuse.

The administration wants their negotiators to get to Geneva with as big a hand as they already have. They feel that they have settled their issues with the French, so that isn’t really what they’re as most worried about. They want to be able to get to Geneva without the Hill doing anything to clip its wings, and they were so concerned about the revolt among Democrats this week that there was even talk in the administration and among its friends about a plan B, that if we — if Dems need to vote yes on something, maybe, as long as we can forestall this stripping-the-waivers part, that we might agree to a sanctions bill that doesn’t take effect for six months.

GWEN IFILL: That’s the middle ground?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that’s the middle ground. The administration doesn’t like it.

I was told by a very senior official that’s really — that’s a slippery slope to them. And a Hill aide said to me, a Democratic aide, that there may be a compromise where they give him another week to 10 days, but not the two months he was asking for.

GWEN IFILL: Sounds like a week full of slippery slopes.

MARGARET WARNER: A lot of slippery slopes, Gwen, and more to come.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, thanks.