Lawmakers came out swinging on Thursday afternoon after the State Department issued a blanket denial regarding statements that Secretary of State John Kerry made to members of Congress earlier that morning about the potential need for new sanctions on Iran.
Kerry was widely reported to have told a group of Jewish lawmakers Thursday morning that the administration is open to a new sanctions bill, as news emerged from Vienna that U.S. negotiators would likely be unable to force concessions from Tehran before the July 20 deadline for nuclear talks.
The administration’s narrative—which has long held that new pressure on Iran is not necessary in order to extract meaningful concessions from Iran—appeared to be in danger of unraveling by mid-Thursday after State Department officials went into damage control mode and vociferously denied that Kerry had made those statements.
Attempts to slap down the reports led those present in the meeting to reiterate Kerry’s comments and cast doubt on the State Department’s numerous denials.
Kerry conceded to lawmakers that the passage of new Iran sanctions that kick in only if the United States and Iran fail to reach a deal could provide "additional leverage" in talks with Tehran, according to a member of Congress present in the meeting.
Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) proposed in the morning meeting that Congress should pass sanctions legislation that would only take effect if negotiators fail to reach a deal.
"Kerry said, ‘Well that might give us some additional leverage,’" recalled one member of Congress who was in the meeting and spoke to the Washington Free Beacon on background. "When [Kerry] said that, [Rep. Brad] Sherman said, ‘Secretary, that’s huge,’ and the secretary responded, 'I’m going to check with the White House and see what the admin policy is.’"
The State Department maintained its flat denial that the remarks were made and referred the Free Beacon to earlier statements rejecting Kerry’s comments.
Kerry "made clear that we oppose new sanctions legislation while we negotiate, period," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf tweeted Thursday afternoon in one of several tweets on the issue.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D., Calif.), who was present at the morning meeting, also hinted that Kerry had made the remarks during a speech Thursday afternoon on Capitol Hill organized by the Foreign Policy Initiative and other think tanks.
"The administration is not as opposed as they were yesterday or two months ago," he told a group of reporters and congressional staffers in comments that led State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki to lash out at the congressman.
"I think there are times when members of Congress hear and project what they want to hear, but the secretary's position hasn't changed, and he certainly made that clear this morning," Psaki told reporters in response to questions about the apparent policy schism.
Sherman stood by his comments when reached by the Free Beacon Thursday afternoon.
"I stand with the actual words I spoke in the Hart Senate office building," he said.
"There was a discussion, and a few months ago they [the administration] would have not even discussed it," Sherman said, referring to conditional sanctions legislation.
However, in Thursday's meeting with Kerry, "there was not a, ‘No. We can’t think about it.’ There was an exchange of views and it was not as harshly, dismissively negative as it was a couple of months ago."
As the deadline for a nuclear deal closes and talks are at an impasse, the administration has found itself offering many contradictory comments.
Harf claimed in early June that the administration was in no way mulling an extension of the nuclear talks, a situation that seems unavoidable at this point.
"The United States is not signaling that we are prepared to extend the Iran nuclear negotiations, period," Harf told Al-Monitor. "We are working towards the July 20th date, and we believe we can meet that date."
However, by Tuesday Kerry and his Iranian counterparts were laying "the groundwork" for an extension due to ongoing disagreements between the two nations.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill), one of the key architects of Iran sanctions legislation, said that Kerry’s remarks on Thursday "show that he’s preparing for a big zippo on this agreement coming."
"Now, he’s finally rediscovered the value of sanctions against the Iranians," Kirk told the Free Beacon in an interview. "I’ll bet that when we see how little they’ve got in [nuclear talks] we may have the administration agreeing more and more with Kirk-Menendez," a long stalled Senate bill that would impose new sanctions on Tehran.
Kirk said that he does not intend to try and force action on the sanctions bill until after the July 20 deadline, a move that effectively prevents lawmakers from taking action until after the August recess.