Washington: The Obama administration enters the year locked in a battle with Congress over whether to plow ahead with new economic sanctions against Iran or cautiously wait to see if last year’s breakthrough nuclear agreement holds.

The new sanctions, widely endorsed by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, would blacklist several Iranian industrial sectors and threaten banks and companies around the world with being banned from the US market if they help Iran export any more oil. The provisions would only take effect if Tehran violates the interim nuclear deal or lets it expire without a follow-up accord.

The House already approved similar legislation last July by a 400-20 vote and would likely pass the new sanctions by an overwhelming margin. But the Obama administration, fearful of squandering a historic diplomatic opportunity to end the nuclear crisis, has succeeded so far in holding off a Senate vote.

The standoff has prompted sharp barbs from both sides.

The November 24 agreement “makes a nuclear Iran more likely,” argued Sen. Marco Rubio. Fellow Republican Sen. John Cornyn called it an attempt to distract attention from President Barack Obama’s health care rollout. “We really haven’t gained anything,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said. The deal “falls short of what is necessary for security and stability
in the region,” added Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.

White House press secretary Jay Carney has accused lawmakers of trying to spoil negotiations in Geneva as part of a “march to war.” Before breaking for winter vacation, Obama suggested the sanctions push from members of Congress reflected the “politics of trying to look tough on Iran.”

The rhetoric has exacerbated what is essentially a debate over tactics, not substance. All want to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

But the prevention strategies differ strikingly over the role additional sanctions might play as negotiators try to end the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

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