As Iran’s new leader raises the possibility of opening nuclear negotiations with President Obama, key U.S. lawmakers say any agreement would have to clear a significant hurdle: dismantling a nuclear program Iran has insisted is its sovereign right.
At the very least, these legislators tell The Daily Beast, Iran will have to suspend enrichment of uranium.
It’s “possible” that Hassan Rouhani—Iran’s new president, who has been making diplomatic overtures in recent days—will meet with Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week, according to comments from the White House press secretary.
On Monday, a day before the U.N. summit kicks off, Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in a letter to President Obama, “Iran is not a friend whose word can be taken as a promise.” The letter, co-signed with Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, goes on to say, “The test of Iranian seriousness must be verifiable action by Iran to terminate its nuclear weapons program, including compliance with the mandates of four U.N. Security Council Resolutions.”
From the perspective of prior Iranian nuclear negotiations, that is a particularly high bar. Iranian negotiators in the past have asserted Iran’s right to peaceful enrichment. Rouhani himself asserted this earlier this month, saying, “Our government will not give up one iota of its absolute rights on the nuclear issue.” What’s more, any deal with Iran would likely have to include relief of targeted economic sanctions that have severed Iran’s banks from the international financial system.
“We need a face-saving option.”
Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Daily Beast, “I think we have to listen to Rouhani and hopefully this will be the start of something new. But I won’t hold my breath over it. The rhetoric is great, but there needs to be real tangible things.”
Engel said he would need to see Iran verifiably freeze its nuclear program as a first step in exchange for ending the legislative push for a new round of sanctions in Congress.
For the sanctions relief Iran is seeking, they would have to do much more, according to Engel. “They would need to stop spinning those centrifuges and stop the installation of new centrifuges and halt enrichment,” Engel said. He added that Iran would also have to stop construction of a heavy water nuclear facility in Arak that it is building with assistance from Russia. Finally, Engel said, he would need to see Iran agree to remove all of its uranium enriched over 20 percent. Iranian negotiators briefly agreed in 2009 and 2010 to such an arrangement, but the deal then fell apart.
Patrick Clawson, the director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a D.C.-based think tank, said he worried that Iran’s negotiators were not prepared for how long the process might take for Congress to lift sanctions. “I don’t think the Iranians know how slow we are going to be in lifting sanctions,” he said. Clawson pointed out that the sanctions first imposed on the Soviet Union in the 1970s to pressure Moscow to allow dissidents to leave the country were on the books until last year.
Despite such skepticism, recent gestures from Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, present the most enticing olive branch to the West since the presidency of Mohammed Khatami, a reformer elected in 1997 whose authority was sidelined by the end of his second term in 2005. Zarif, for example, went on Twitter to offer Jews a Rosh Hashanah greeting. To put that in perspective, consider that Iran’s last president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatened to wipe the world’s only Jewish state off the map.
If Obama seeks to take advantage Rouhani’s outreach, he will need support from a Congress that appears unconvinced about the new Iranian president’s charm offensive. One House staff member who spoke to The Daily Beast Monday said Iran would need at the very least to suspend uranium enrichment to stop legislators from moving a new sanctions bill aimed at the regime’s nuclear program. A memo released last week from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel group that has made Iranian sanctions a centerpiece of its lobbying efforts since the 1990s said, “The international community should only consider sanctions relief if Iran complies with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that require suspending its nuclear activities. Any such relief must be commensurate with the extent of Tehran’s actions.”
Tommy Vietor, who left his post earlier this year as spokesman for the White House National Security Staff, warned Monday that Obama should be given some flexibility to explore a deal.
“The supreme leader [Ali Khamenei, who is more powerful than President Rouhani] will not prostrate himself before the West,” Vietor said. “We need a face-saving option. For that to happen there has to be some political space for a negotiation. Sometimes toughness on foreign policy boils down to how many adjectives you use to denounce the Iranian regime in a press release. That is a ridiculous way to conduct foreign policy.”
For now, Menendez and Graham are urging Obama to use his speech Tuesday before the United Nations as a way to warn Iran that military force remains an option. “We urge you to make clear the United States’ goal of achieving a diplomatic solution,” the two senators wrote. “But also our resolve to take whatever action is necessary to prevent Iran from become a nuclear state.”