WASHINGTON — While speaking favorably of the Obama administration reaching a short term agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, Sen. Harry Reid on Monday also kept the door open for the Senate to pass new U.S. economic sanctions against the Middle Eastern nation.
Speaking on a National Public Radio show out of Washington, the Senate majority leader from Nevada said the deal reached by Secretary of State John Kerry and leaders of other major powers was “an important first step.”
“Whether it is a first step good enough we will take a look at that,” Reid said. “But at least for the first time in 37 years the United States, China, Russia, France, Great Britain, we all were able to talk to Iran for the first time.”
The agreement reached in Geneva would ease sanctions in exchange for a six month freeze and daily monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, possibly a prologue to a more comprehensive agreement that could be discussed in the spring.
Speaking with radio host Diane Rehm, Reid noted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., came out in support of the arrangement and that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was “cautiously optimistic.”
But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of Reid’s top leadership deputies, said Sunday that Iran may have gotten the better end of the deal, making it more likely the Senate will move ahead with additional sanctions.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.Y., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he expects a new sanctions bill to move forward, containing a six month window allowing the agreement to be monitored before new penalties take effect.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., sits on the Senate Banking Committee that is expected to hold hearings on Iran sanctions. He and others on the panel were briefed by Obama officials recently on their request not to press new penalties while negotiations were continuing.
Heller said Monday he was skeptical on the weekend agreement, which he said lifts some of the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table to begin with.
“A nuclear Iran is not in the best interest of the Middle East, and especially not of Israel, which begs the question of whether this deal brings Iran closer or further away from obtaining nuclear weapon capabilities,” Heller said in a statement
“In the end, I believe that this deal is wrought with risk, and will continue to monitor developments as the process moves forward,” he said.
Reid last week encouraged the Obama administration to keep talking with Iran, but said the Senate must be made ready to advance new sanctions.
“The Senate must be prepared to move forward with a new bipartisan Iran sanctions bill, when the Senate returns after Thanksgiving recess,” Reid said on Thursday. “And I am committed to do so.”
“I will support a bill that would broaden the scope of our current petroleum sanctions, place limitations on trade with strategic sectors of the Iranian economy that support its nuclear ambitions, as well as pursue those who divert goods to Iran,” he said.
“I believe we must do everything possible to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons capability, which would threaten Israel and the national security of the United States,” he said.
Reid maintained his position had not changed now that Kerry has brought home a deal.
“I said when we come back we will take a look at stronger sanctions,” he told Rehm. “If we need to do stronger sanctions I’m sure we will do that.”
Reid also said he understood why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has raised concerns. The Israeli leader called the agreement an “historic mistake” that allows Iran to take “only cosmetic steps which it could reverse easily within a few weeks” while sanctions that took years to enact would be eased.
“I’ve spoken with Prime Minister Netanyahu about this,” Reid said. “If I were the leader of that country I’d be concerned too. I am concerned (about Iran) thousands of miles away. You can imagine how he must feel being a few miles away.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Follow @STetreaultDC on Twitter