President Barack Obama asked a group of senators Tuesday to hold off on new sanctions against Iran to allow the administration time to pursue negotiations with the country to constrain its nuclear weapons program.
The two-hour closed door meeting came as high-level international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program resume this week in Geneva.
The White House said Obama "made clear that achieving a peaceful resolution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is profoundly in America’s national security interest."
At a Wall Street Journal CEO Council annual meeting hours after the meeting, Obama said current sanctions have forced Iran to the negotiating table and that the world should test whether the regime in Tehran is ready to re-enter the world community.
Israel and Saudi Arabia, key U.S. regional allies, don’t trust Iran and are alarmed over the prospect of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement. Obama said the agreement would "open up the spigot a little bit for a very modest amount of relief" that could be reinstated if Iran violated any part of the agreement.
And he argued that the "most powerful sanctions" against Iran's oil, banking and financial services sectors have really pinched the country and would stay in place.
"What we are suggesting, both to the Israelis, to members of Congress here, to the international community, but also to the Iranians, is 'Let's look, let's test the proposition that over the next six months we can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion while maintaining the essential sanctions architecture," Obama said. "I think that is a test that is worth conducting."
Obama said the current proposal would require Iran to "halt advances on their nuclear program," as well as roll back elements that get them closer to "breakout capacity, where they can run for a weapon before the international community has a chance to react." The regime would also be subject to more vigorous inspections, in some cases, daily inspections.
But Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and ranking Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, said in a letter to Obama that they're worried the proposal doesn't go far enough to deter Iran.
“We must sustain economic pressure and consequent political pressure on the Iranian regime if we hope to reach a final agreement in which Iran has verifiably dismantled its nuclear program," they wrote.
The White House said Obama told the senators that the sanctions were imposed in the first place to "change Iran’s calculus regarding its nuclear program" and that new sanctions shouldn't be imposed, "but that they would be most effective as a robust response should negotiations fail."
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters that the meeting was "appreciated," but he said some senators remain "concerned we're giving up leverage."
He said Obama asked for a "period of time," before new sanctions are considered.
But Corker said he didn't think "there's any choice" that new sanctions could be added until after the Senate's Thanksgiving recess because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has essentially barred the Senate from attaching amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act -- the only legislation that's moving in Congress.
Other senators in the meeting included Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin; Charles Schumer, D-N.Y; Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Tim Johnson, D-South Dakota; Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, D-Michigan; Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey and John McCain, R-Arizona.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani today and a spokesperson for the PM said they agreed that "significant progress" had been made in the recent Geneva negotiations.
"The Prime Minister underlined the necessity of Iran comprehensively addressing the concerns of the international community about their nuclear programme, including the need for greater transparency," Cameron's spokesperson said.