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Participants said it was not clear after the meeting what the consensus was among the staffers, who advise lawmakers and play a critical role in advancing and shaping legislation.
They described two competing narratives, one in which increased sanctions would help keep Iran at the negotiating table, and another in which they drive Iran away.
The differences did not divide along partisan lines, participants said, with some of the fiercest resistance to putting a hold on new sanctions coming from staffers for Democrats. Those who want to enhance sanctions emphasized that Iran continues to enrich uranium and ignore other U.N. Security Council demands.
“We think that this is a time for a pause to see if negotiations can gain traction,” Wendy Sherman, the third-highest-ranked official at the State Department, who is leading talks with Iran, told the Voice of America.
Sherman’s pleas, which she made in a meeting with House members last week and which she will repeat in a Senate meeting this week, seem to have had an effect. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told a Jewish audience last week that he would be open to freezing sanctions action for a period of time.
“I would be open to freezing further legislative action on this new sanctions bill if Iran quickly takes a number of concrete and fully verifiable steps,” he said at an event organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.
“First, Iran must freeze all enrichment, as demanded repeatedly by the U.N. Security Council. It must stop the installation of new centrifuges and halt construction of the Arak heavy water reactor, which could produce plutonium. It must agree to remove all of its 20 percent enriched uranium from the country. Finally, it must allow comprehensive nuclear inspections.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favors enhanced sanctions, something his strategic affairs minister, Yuval Steinitz, emphasized in meetings with officials on Oct. 23, when he led the Israeli team in the semi-annual U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue.
“The more you increase the pressure, the greater the chances,” Steinitz told reporters. “The Iranians are on the boards — why relieve pressure now?”