Washington: A war-weary Congress generally backs President Barack Obama`s outreach to Iran, but with tougher US economic measures against Tehran on the way, the president`s diplomatic task could get harder if he doesn`t make quick progress.
Obama`s phone conversation last week with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was a groundbreaking conversation. It was the first contact in more than 30 years between the leaders of the two countries and an about-face from when Obama`s predecessor, George W Bush, included Iran in his "axis of evil" with North Korea and Iraq.
The sentiment in Washington`s political circles has changed, too.
Five years ago, Obama the presidential candidate was hit with criticism for suggesting talks with the Iranians without preconditions. Then during his re-election campaign, Obama was called weak on Iran.
Now, even leading Senate hawks, such as his 2008 opponent, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have backed Obama`s careful engagement effort. They say it is worth testing Iran`s seriousness even if they`re skeptical about Rouhani`s new course of moderation and disdainful of Tehran`s human rights record and alleged support for terrorism.
The debate essentially has shifted away from whether it`s worth talking to Iran to debating the details of engaging Iran, which claims it is not seeking nuclear weapons.
While Obama`s gesture to Tehran hasn`t prompted major Republican criticism, it has fed into domestic arguments over health care and spending levels. Several Republicans in Congress have lambasted the president for appearing "more willing" to talk to Rouhani than with them.
While the current government shutdown may have muted congressional reaction to Obama`s phone call with Rouhani, lawmakers are moving forward on legislation for new sanctions, with plans to tee them up so the president can use enhanced sanctions as part of his negotiating leverage.
In July, the House approved tough new sanctions on Iran`s oil sector and other industries. The bill blacklists any business in Iran`s mining and construction sectors and commits the United States to the goal of ending all Iranian oil sales worldwide by 2015.
The House adopted the legislation by a 400-20 vote. It builds on US penalties that went into effect last year that have cut Iran`s petroleum exports in half and left its economy in tatters. China, India and several other Asian nations continue to buy billions of dollars of Iranian oil each month.
No bill would likely be finalised before November. That gives the administration at least several weeks to see whether Iran under Rouhani changes course.