With senior Obama administration officials lauding what they called "detailed, straightforward, candid conversations" with Iran in Geneva this week, senators are weighing their next moves on Iran sanctions, including possible changes — and another possible delay — to a draft bill they are readying for introduction.
"There are a lot of discussions" in reaction to the Geneva talks, said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a senior member of the Banking Committee, which is drafting the new sanctions bill.
On Monday, the day before world leaders met for the first round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, Corker released a statement saying "Congress can play a constructive role" in the talks "by putting in place tough conditions on Iran before any easing of sanctions can occur."
In this way, Washington could reward Tehran for living up to concessions it may make in future rounds of negotiations — what diplomats call "confidence building" moves — without having to unwind or waive any current sanctions. That's something most in Congress refuse will to do until Iran has completely, and verifiably, dismantled its entire nuclear program.
The concept, floated by Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions expert and executive director of the pro-sanctions Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and first reported by Bloomberg News, would take advantage of the fact that Iran has limited access to cash, thanks to existing sanctions. And much of what it does have is tied up in foreign escrow accounts that countries pay into when they buy its oil, a requirement under U.S. sanctions law. Tehran can only use those accounts to purchase goods from the handful of countries — China, Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey — that have waivers under U.S. law to buy Iranian oil and control the accounts.
Essentially, says Dubowitz, this would support the principle a bipartisan group of 10 senior senators laid out Monday in a letter to the president: "If you suspend enrichment entirely, we'll suspend new sanctions."
That's "the carrot," Dubowitz says. "The stick, and it's a big stick," is that if Iran doesn't do that, "all your money gets frozen."
In addition, if Iran is caught cheating at any point along the way in this "confidence building" process, all the escrow account payments are canceled, in what he calls a "snap back" mechanism.
A Republican Senate aide said the "idea could have merit if it's legislated correctly," and noted that "the administration cannot implement such a plan unless Congress amends the current sanctions to allow it."
He predicted it could win bipartisan support "if we moved forward with a stick and carrot approach with strict congressional oversight procedures," starting with freezing all remaining Iranian overseas reserves, except those used to purchase food and medicine.
"Once that additional squeeze is in place," the aide continued, "you could tailor a very narrow exception for the administration to allow the Iranians to use a specific dollar figure in exchange for nuclear concessions. But for this to be taken seriously, no money could be released until the Iranian concession is irreversibly implemented and Congress would need to have the authority to put a hold on any proposed deal in the same way Congress can hold up the obligation of appropriations."
It remains to be seen if members would agree to include such a measure in the final Banking Committee draft of the sanctions bill, which has been on hold since the summer. Dubowitz says he has discussed the proposal with the State Department and Capitol Hill staff.