A last minute delay last week in the implementation of new Iran sanctions has some prominent congressional backers of the nuclear deal accusing the Obama administration of capitulating to Iranian demands, according to sources both on and off Capitol Hill.
Senior Obama administration officials at the White House’s National Security Council told Congress Wednesday morning that new sanctions were coming as a result of Iran’s repeated ballistic missile tests, which violate current United Nations Security Council Resolutions prohibiting such activity.
However, the administration quietly walked back its announcement, telling lawmakers that the sanctions would be indefinitely delayed.
The move sparked a fierce backlash among prominent congressional leaders who have served as chief advocates for the administration’s efforts to ink a nuclear deal with Iran.
Sources who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon about the delay claim that the administration has repeatedly allowed Iran to dictate the terms of the deal out of fear that the Islamic Republic will ditch the deal before it is officially implemented later this month.
Iranian leaders have made clear that any new U.S. sanctions will force it to walk away from the nuclear agreement. In the wake of the new sanctions debate, Iranian military leaders announced over the weekend they are working to increase the strength and destructive power of the country’s arsenal.
The White House’s initial message to Congress on Wednesday morning offered tough rhetoric chastising Iran’s ballistic missile program and its recent test firings.
"Iran’s ballistic missile program poses a significant threat to regional and global security, and it will continue to be subject to international sanctions," Adam Szubin, the Treasury Department’s acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in an embargoed statement that was forwarded to congressional offices that morning and viewed by the Free Beacon.
"We have consistently made clear that the United States will vigorously press sanctions against Iranian activities outside of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—including those related to Iran’s support for terrorism, regional destabilization, human rights abuses, and ballistic missile program," Szubin maintained in the statement, which was later scrapped.
Hours after that initial communication was sent to the Hill, the administration nixed the announcement, saying in a subsequent communication that the new sanctions—which were to hit 11 entities and individuals known to be enabling Iran’s missile program—would be indefinitely delayed.
Lawmakers who just that morning had applauded the new sanctions were not pleased.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D., Md.), a leading supporter of the Iran deal, blasted the move, expressing disappointment with the administration’s efforts to appease Iran.
"I am disappointed that the Administration has delayed punitive action in response to Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests," Hoyer said in a statement. "We are always in a sensitive moment in our dealings with Iran, and there is never a perfect time to undertake such actions. But Iran must know with certainty that violating U.N. Security Council resolutions, both inside and outside the scope of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will be met with serious consequences."
Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), another leading deal supporter who initially praised the new sanctions, also expressed dismay at the administration’s move to delay the effort.
"I believe in the power of vigorous enforcement that pushes back on Iran’s bad behavior," Coons told the Wall Street Journal. "If we don’t do that, we invite Iran to cheat."
When asked to address the issue on Sunday, a senior Obama administration official told the Free Beacon that there are still "remaining issues" that need to be addressed before new sanctions are announced.
"As we’ve said, we've been looking for some time at options for additional actions related to Iran's ballistic missile program based on our continued concerns about its activities, including the October 10th launch," the senior official explained, reiterating the White House’s commitment to sanctions.
"We are considering various aspects related to additional designations, as well as evolving diplomatic work that is consistent with our national security interests," the official said. "As always, we keep Congress informed about issues related to Iran sanctions, and will continue to do so as we work through remaining issues."
A State Department spokesman echoed this stance, telling the Free Beacon that it continues to explore ways to increase sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Sanctions expert Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Free Beacon that the administration might reconsider new sanctions once it strikes a "side deal" with Iran.
"I would expect that the administration will return to these sanctions after cutting some kind of side deal with the Iranians offering even more unilateral concessions," Dubowitz said.
Critics of the move remain skeptical.
"To push back against Iran's repeated missile and human rights provocations, Congress should pass the Menendez-Kirk bill to immediately renew a critical Iran sanctions law that expires this year," said Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal.
One consultant who has worked with Congress on issues pertaining to the nuclear deal told the Free Beacon that the administration fears Iran’s threats to break the deal.
"First the Obama administration strong-armed congressional Democrats into approving a politically toxic nuclear deal, under the pretense that at least the White House would fight Iranian aggression in other ways," the source said, explaining that lawmakers who have defended the deal were made to look foolish by the sanctions delay.
"People like Coons and Hoyer went home and told constituents that they'd at least make sure Iranian terrorism and missile work was punished," the source said. "Now the Obama team has deprived them of even that fig leaf. They're going to have to defend total capitulation to their constituents."
Meanwhile, Iran announced on Friday that it is working to significantly boost "the destruction power and precision" of its missiles, according to comments carried in the country’s state-controlled press.
Iran President Hassan Rouhani instructed the country’s military leaders to strengthen the missile program following rumors that the United States was contemplating new sanctions.
"Following [on] the president's letter, we held numerous meetings with the executive officials, commanders, and officials in the missile sector and decided work out appropriate plans as soon as possible to enhance the defensive power and capability as well as the effective deterrence power of our missiles contrary to the will of the hegemonic system which seeks to restrict the Islamic Republic militarily," Hossein Dehqan, Iran’s defense minister, said.