WASHINGTON – Maryland’s two Democratic senators disagree on proposed legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran, even as the Obama Administration negotiates with the Islamic republic.
Iran last year agreed to an interim nuclear deal that would ease sanctions on that country in exchange for increased international oversight of its nuclear program.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin is one of 15 Democrats, along with almost all Republicans in the Senate, who have cosponsored a bill to introduce new economic sanctions on Iran if it doesn’t comply with the nuclear deal. But Maryland’s other senator, Barbara Mikulski, has coauthored a letter along with nine other Democratic Senate committee heads urging Majority Leader Harry Reid not to bring the bill up for a vote.
The division represents a departure from the Maryland senators’ usual support for President Barack Obama’s agenda.
“Sen. Mikulski remains skeptical that Iran can come through,” said Mikulski’s office in a statement. “Now that they’ve come to the table, she believes the administration should have a limited amount of time and flexibility to negotiate with Iran while keeping open the options for additional sanctions. “
The interim nuclear deal was reached in November between Iran and six other countries, including the United States. Among other provisions, it prohibits Iran from opening any new nuclear facilities, limits the amount of nuclear centrifuges it may install and implements strict International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversight of Iran’s existing nuclear facilities.
The deal marks significant progress in relations between the U.S. and Iran, two countries that have been at odds for decades.
In 1953, a U.S.-backed coup overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister. A quarter century later, the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis led the U.S. to implement its first sanctions against that country.
Sanctions intensified during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and during the 1990s due to Iranian sponsorship of terrorism. The 2013 interim nuclear deal, which freezes Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, is the first formal agreement between the U.S. and Iran in 34 years.
The Maryland senators’ division over the deal mirrors the schism among Senate Democrats. In their joint letter to Reid, Democratic senators in favor of the interim deal and opposed to the sanctions bill cite “the effectiveness of current sanctions” and warn that “new sanctions would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.”
The bill’s cosponsors, however, have likely garnered enough support for it to pass if brought up for a vote. These cosponsors include vulnerable Senate Democrats in largely Republican states like Arkansas and Louisiana.
Supporters of the bill say that it would only impose additional sanctions if Iran fails to comply with the terms of the interim nuclear deal, but the White House argues that even this could jeopardize the sensitive agreement.
“We want to make sure that they (Iran) comply with their agreement to dismantle their capacity to break out to a nuclear weapon,” Cardin said. “We want to make it clear that if they violate that, not only will we re-impose sanctions, but we will strengthen the sanctions. I think that’s very consistent with the (Obama) administration. We may have a difference on tactics, but Congress is independent and we certainly are going to try to work with the administration.”
Cardin and Mikulski’s inability to come together reflects the views of their predominantly-Democratic constituency in Maryland, which remains divided on the issue.
According to a 2013 CNN/ORC poll, a slim majority of Democrats approved of the nuclear agreement, with 56 percent of respondents in favor and 27 percent opposed. By contrast, Maryland’s fast-growing independent voting bloc was 29 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed.
If brought for a vote and passed by the Senate, the sanctions bill is likely to pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
“The House and Senate both have an obligation and a right and a responsibility to articulate their views as to what needs to be the final outcome,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland. “The final outcome must be designed to prevent … the acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Iran.”
Hoyer voted for a different sanctions bill last year that passed the House with overwhelming support, but has been stalled in the Senate for months. The House is not currently considering new legislation.
The Obama administration has lobbied forcefully against the Senate bill. According to several news reports, Obama warned Senate Democrats in a meeting at the White House last week of the risks the bill would pose to the ongoing diplomatic process with Iran.
It is still unclear whether Reid will bring it to the Senate floor for a vote, and Obama has promised to veto the bill if it passes both houses of Congress, saying that it would derail the interim nuclear agreement.