Senator Lindsey Graham (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
By Mary Orndorff Troyan
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and a handful of Senate Democrats are urging the White House not to ease economic sanctions against Iran unless the country makes a clear commitment to scale back its nuclear ambitions.
The bipartisan message, delivered in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday, is part of Graham's three-step strategy to influence international talks underway in Geneva, Switzerland.
Graham, a hawkish foreign policy voice in Congress, also wants the Senate to insist that Iran give up all uranium enrichment activity as part of any deal. And he wants the Senate to consider a third round of sanctions targeting Iran after the Thanksgiving break.
"The worst possible thing to do now is to let the Iranians know the pressure is off," Graham said in a Monday speech.
The Seneca Republican, who often speaks in dire terms about the threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the U.S. and its allies, has delayed - but not dropped - his proposal to give President Barack Obama congressional authorization to use military force against Iran. Graham said over the summer he would introduce legislation this fall authorizing military force, but he now says he will wait until early next year.
"If (the resolution) allowed the president to act in our interest but also gave him the authority to come in behind Israel if they attacked, that would change everything," Graham said at a gathering of conservatives known as the New York Meeting. "The Iranians know one thing: They could survive an Israeli attack, most likely, but they could not survive a war with America. We've got to convince them that it is a real option, and the Congress can help in that endeavor."
Graham said it's unlikely legislation to threaten war would attract strong bipartisan support in the Democrat-controlled Senate now, but it might later.
"I believe public support for stopping the Iranian nuclear program is far deeper and wider than public support for getting involved in Syria," Graham said. "We need a public campaign to raise awareness of what life would be like if the ayatollahs had a nuke. That's the way you get to 90 votes."
The letter to Kerry, signed by Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine, and Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, warned it's not enough to just slow Iran's nuclear progress.
"If we are reducing sanctions, Iran should be reducing its nuclear capabilities," they wrote.
White House spokesman Jay Carney disagreed that current negotiations reflect an overly lenient stance toward Iran. He said the first phase of the potential deal includes a rollback of Iranian nuclear capability and "limited, temporary relief" from sanctions.
"This would, if it comes to pass, be a very serious, substantive agreement," Carney said.
The negotiations in Geneva include France, England, Germany, China and Russia.
The White House has not ruled out military force against Iran, but officials want to give diplomatic efforts a chance.
"The president is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and firmly believes that it would be preferable to do so peacefully," Carney said. "Therefore, he has a responsibility to pursue the ongoing diplomatic negotiations before turning to other alternatives, including military options."