Secretary of State John F. Kerry said of the dispute with Iran, "We… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John F. Kerry implored Congress on Thursday not to impose tough new sanctions on Iran, warning that such a move could disrupt diplomacy over Tehran's disputed nuclear program at a delicate moment.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry said that because Iran is two months away from an election, new U.S. economic penalties could become an inflamed political issue and reduce the chances of a deal to curb the nuclear program.
"There's an enormous amount of jockeying going on, with the obvious normal tension between hard-liners and people who want to make an agreement," he told committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). "We don't need to spin this up at this point in time.... You need to leave us the window to try to work the diplomatic channel."
Kerry's comments exposed again the tension between Congress' desire to hit Iran with ever-tougher sanctions and the Obama administration's concern that penalties could undermine diplomacy and strain the international coalition seeking to curb the nuclear program.
The House is weighing a bill that aims to further reduce Iranian oil sales and cut non-oil trade. Sen. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) is sponsoring a sanctions measure, and other senators are discussing additional legislation, Menendez said.
With the Iranian nuclear program advancing and diplomatic efforts seemingly stalled, lawmakers have been arguing that it is imperative to build further pressure on the Iranian economy as soon as possible.
Menendez sounded unconvinced by Kerry's plea, saying he sees the "diplomatic window increasingly closing" and fears that Iran is close to having a nuclear weapons capability.
"I am concerned that if they can manage the present set of circumstances over the next five months or so, then we will have a real challenge," he said.
But the administration believes that with economic pressures building from previous rounds of sanctions, Iran may be willing to negotiate in a few months, after the elections are over and a new government is installed.
Kerry said the administration might be open to discussing sanctions later. He declined to go into more detail about his opposition to further sanctions, saying he could talk about the subject only behind closed doors.
For the administration, "the main fear is that the slim chance of a deal could become slimmer," said Cliff Kupchan, an analyst at the Eurasia Group consulting firm and a former State Department official. "The number of bites we have at the apple is limited."
The Iranians are reportedly installing hundreds more of their most advanced centrifuges, which give them the ability to more quickly accumulate uranium needed for bomb fuel.
And after the failure of the last round of international diplomacy, there are new signs of Israeli impatience. Israeli officials again warned this week that they could carry out a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities without U.S. help.
It is unclear whether Kerry's appeal will succeed. There is a powerful desire in Congress to penalize Iran and support Israel, and Congress has repeatedly adopted sanctions that the administration initially resisted.
In Vienna, meanwhile, two diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity said Iran and the United Nations nuclear agency have agreed to mid-May talks focused on restarting a probe of suspicions that Tehran has worked secretly on atomic weapons, according to the Associated Press.