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White House urges skeptical lawmakers to avoid new Iran sanctions

December 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Now to an insider’s look at the interim agreement over Iran’s nuclear program and the uphill battle facing the Obama administration.

Ever since foreign ministers closed the nuclear deal with Iran 10 days ago, the Obama administration has been trying to win over a skeptical Congress and stave off new sanctions. Today, Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator in Geneva, held a closed-door briefing for members of the House.

Republican Trent Franks of Arizona is among the lawmakers who have called the agreement a bad deal.

REP. TRENT FRANKS, R-Ariz.: It seems like there’s just a general notion that we’re afraid to allow Iran to question our sincerity, when we should be questioning theirs.

Iran has given no concession of any kind for 30 years. And yet we are now taking some of our most powerful inducements off the table.

GWEN IFILL: Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee was milder in his criticism, but he said the U.S. has to proceed very carefully.

REP. DAN KILDEE, D-Mich.: We have to be very cautious with this state, and very skeptical, and realize that the reason that we’re in the position we’re in right now is that the sanctions are working, and the sanctions need to be not just seen only as a penalty, but as an inducement to better behavior.

GWEN IFILL: Under the agreement, a limited number of economic sanctions would be eased for six months. In exchange, Iran would agree to neutralize its stockpile of uranium, already enriched to 20 percent, a big step toward reaching weapons-grade, stop enriching any uranium beyond 5 percent purity, stop installing new centrifuges or building new facilities to enrich uranium, and grant new and greater access to international inspectors.

Iran also agreed to halt work at its Arak plutonium facility. But Democratic and Republican lawmakers were unmoved by the Iranian concessions, and want to toughen sanctions instead.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney argued against that approach yesterday.

JAY CARNEY, White House Press Secretary: It would make more sense to hold our powder, or keep our powder dry, rather, until we see whether Iran violates the understanding we have reached, and act accordingly at that time.

If we pass sanctions now, even with a deferred trigger, which has been discussed, the Iranians and likely our international partners, will see us as having negotiated in bad faith, and this would have a bad — this would have a bearing, rather, on our core sanctions architecture.

GWEN IFILL: Indeed, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had made clear that his government wants to get rid of all economic punishment permanently.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through interpreter): The cruelty with which our people are treated must be lifted. This is our goal. We should dispose of the threats. We will resolve the threats. Our goal is to break the sanctions and take them out of the people’s way.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel: This agreement has made the world a much more dangerous place.

GWEN IFILL: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been highly and publicly critical of the deal reached in Geneva.

But some former Israeli security chiefs say that negotiations with Iran should be pursued. And former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused Netanyahu of — quote — “waging war” on the Obama administration. Negotiators are expected to meet with Iran in Vienna next week, just as the Senate returns to tackle the sanctions issue.