WASHINGTON - Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) have filed an amendment to the must-pass defense budget that would extend Congressional sanctions against Iran for 10 additional years, a move that threatens to complicate the delicate negotiations taking place around Iran's nuclear program.
The amendment if passed, would extend the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996, currently set to expire at the end of 2016 for another ten years.
The sanctions target Iran's intercontinental ballistic missiles program and support for terrorism and not its nuclear program. -- they would not be part of the sanctions terminated or suspended as part of a nuclear deal between Iran, the US and its five negotiating partners.
Peter Billerbeck, a former Senate staffer and current policy adviser at a think tank called Third Way, slammed the proposed amendment as "needlessly reckless and premature, especially at this point in the negotiations when we're at the one-yard line."
He added, "We're at the most critical stage of talks and it's the last thing we need."
The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) has strongly opposed the controversial amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 that would extend the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 from its current expiration of 2016 through 2026.
"This amendment would short-circuit Congressional consideration of sanctions relief in a final nuclear agreement and risk complicating ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran and derailing negotiations as they reach their endgame. If it comes up for a vote, NIAC strongly urges the Senate to reject it," it said.
"With a historic nuclear deal potentially just weeks away, Congress should wait to see the exact parameters of an agreement before considering whether to alter major pieces of Iran sanctions legislation.
"Given that the Iran Sanctions Act doesn't expire until the end of 2016, there's plenty of time to allow for the negotiations to play out and for Congress to review a final deal before considering any action regarding the ISA. Taking action on this matter now, in the middle of negotiations, would be premature and counterproductive.
"Extending sanctions for ten years would send a dangerous signal on one of the most sensitive and unresolved areas remaining in the talks. There are legitimate questions about whether the US will be able to deliver on the terms for sanctions relief under a nuclear deal, and the passage of this amendment would give credence to those concerns.
"Even if Iran acknowledges that US sanctions won't technically be lifted but rather suspended in the initial years of a deal, extending the ISA well into the future would boost Iranian hardliners and make the sell for difficult nuclear compromises in Iran even tougher," it said.
In another development, Sen. Bob Corker, who was largely neutral on a potential nuclear deal with Iran during his successful fight to guarantee Congress a vote on it, has become more critical in recent days.
Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has questioned Secretary of State John Kerry's negotiating skills and has challenged President Barack Obama's assertion that failing to reach a deal with Iran could lead to war.
Corker has accused the Obama administration of withholding information about Iran's nuclear capabilities 10 years from now, after any possible deal expires.
"I think there are legitimate concerns about what happens after year 10, and it makes me concerned that their unwillingness to share that with us means they think it's something that will undermine the American people's confidence in what they're doing," Corker said during a committee hearing on Wednesday.
The Tennessee Republican has scheduled public hearings and classified briefings for his committee throughout June, in case the six countries negotiating with Iran reach an agreement by the June 30 deadline.
Any deal would be subject to congressional review, thanks to a law drafted by Corker that lets lawmakers vote on whether congressionally imposed sanctions on Iran should be lifted in exchange for limiting Iran's nuclear program to peaceful, civilian purposes.
Officially, Corker is rooting for a deal. And he views criticism from Capitol Hill as helpful to the international negotiations.