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Obama administration, Congress spar over nuclear deal with Iran

WASHINGTON--The Obama administration and Congress clashed Tuesday over the historic nuclear deal with Iran, exposing deep rifts over a U.S. pledge to refrain from any new sanctions over the next six months in exchange for concessions on enriching uranium. The disagreement could have broad consequences for the U.S. diplomatic effort to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

In his first congressional testimony since last month's Geneva agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry defended the diplomacy as having halted and rolled back central elements of Iran's nuclear program for the first time. He pleaded with Democrats and Republicans alike not to scuttle the chances of a peaceful resolution to a crisis that has regularly featured U.S. and Israeli threats of potential military action.

“Let me be very clear: This is a very delicate diplomatic moment and we have a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world faces today,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “We're at a crossroads. We're at one of those really hinge points in history. One path could lead to an enduring resolution in the international community's concerns about Iran's nuclear program. The other path could lead to continued hostility and potentially to conflict.”

Kerry's appearance came as lawmakers increasingly threatened to undermine the six-month interim pact, which gives Iran US$7 billion in sanctions relief over the next half-year in exchange for the Islamic republic's neutralizing its higher-enriched uranium stockpiles, not adding any new centrifuges and ceasing work at a heavy water reactor that potentially could produce plutonium used in nuclear weapons.

Senators Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, and Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, are close to completing a bill that would require the administration to certify every 30 days Iran's adherence to the interim pact, according to legislative aides.

Without that certification, the legislation would re-impose all sanctions and introduce new restrictions on Iran's engineering, mining and construction industries. The legislation also calls for a global boycott of Iranian oil by 2015 if Iran fails to live up to the interim agreement. Foreign companies and banks violating the bans would be barred from doing business in the United States.

However, Iran sanctions were left off a defense bill working its way through the Senate this week — much to the dismay of Republicans.

“This is a rather transparent attempt to prevent a vote on enhanced Iran sanctions, so they're trying to circumvent the Senate, pass major legislation, essentially without amendments,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told reporters.

In the House, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, is drafting separate legislation mapping out how a final deal with Iran should look, aides say.

Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has warned any new package of commercial restrictions would kill the deal.

“If Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States,” Zarif told Time magazine. “My parliament can also adopt various legislation that can go into effect if negotiations fail. But if we start doing that, I don't think that we will be getting anywhere.”

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