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Graham Presses for Administration's Iran Endgame

By Stacy Kaper

National Journal

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a reception in her honor of newly sworn-in U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, on Tuesday in Washington. Kerry will brief senators on Wednesday about ongoing talks with Iran about its nuclear program, and encourage the lawmakers to delay approval of new sanctions against the Persian Gulf nation (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images). U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a reception in her honor of newly sworn-in U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, on Tuesday in Washington. Kerry will brief senators on Wednesday about ongoing talks with Iran about its nuclear program, and encourage the lawmakers to delay approval of new sanctions against the Persian Gulf nation (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images).

When Secretary of State John Kerry comes to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to ask lawmakers to hold off on additional sanctions against Iran, he is likely to face tough questions about the administration's endgame in its negotiations with Tehran.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday that there is probably a split among Democrats about how to proceed, but Republicans largely favor enacting additional sanctions against Iran.

Lawmakers have been gearing up for an anticipated debate on Iran sanctions when the Senate takes up the National Defense Authorization Act. The bill could come up later this week. Kerry is due to brief members of the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over Iran sanctions, and members of leadership, all behind closed doors.

As senators look to prep possible amendments on Iran, Graham described himself as "sort of in the middle," preferring to see additional sanctions with waivers move ahead in the Banking Committee rather than on the Senate floor.

Graham does not serve on the Banking Committee, but is an influential defense hawk in the GOP. He is expected to be a major player in the defense authorization battle. "I understand what they are telling us about destroying a chance for a peaceful outcome here by new sanctions," he said. "But I really do believe that if sanctions are crafted in the right way, where if the Iranians did the things we want them to do, that would be more helpful than harmful."

Graham said he ultimately expects to see some targeted sanctions moving ahead.

"There is a healthy skepticism in the Congress that this is repeating the North Korean model and that the Congress believes that more sanctions with waivers is probably the best way to get an agreement we could all live with, versus backing off at this point," he said.

In the meantime, Graham said that the administration needs to convince Republicans that it has an achievable endgame in its negotiations with Tehran. "Here's the real issue: How does this end?" he asked rhetorically.

Graham said he is looking for four specific assurances from Kerry: Iran does not need a heavy-water reactor to be producing plutonium for peaceful purposes; all of the 20-percent-enriched uranium needs to be taken out of Iran; Iran should not control the fuel cycle of any commercial reactor; and Iran should not have enrichment capabilities.

"I don't mind the Iranians having a commercial nuclear program. I really don't. I just mind them having enrichment capabilities," he said.

On a separate national security matter, Graham made positive remarks about Jeh Johnson's prospects of being confirmed for Homeland Security secretary. Johnson testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for his confirmation hearing Wednesday.

"He's a good choice. I like Jeh," Graham said. "My problems are interviewing the five State Department witnesses [on Benghazi]. But Jeh Johnson I think is a good choice. I worked with him when he was general counsel for [the Defense Department]. I found him very knowledgeable -- a very decent fellow."

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