The administration of President Barack Obama appears to have succeeded in preventing Congress from enacting new sanctions against Iran before the next round of nuclear-related talks between the U.S. and other great powers and Tehran scheduled for Geneva Nov. 20.
As a result, optimism that at least an interim deal may soon be achieved between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany) appears once again on the rise here, amidst rumours circulating late Friday that Secretary of State John Kerry himself may lead the U.S. delegation.
While some senators may still try to attach sanctions amendments to pending legislation – notably the 2014 defence authorisation bill (NDAA) to be taken up next week – most observers on Capitol Hill believe they will be highly unlikely to be voted on before Congress’s two-week Thanksgiving recess, pushing any possible new legislative action against Iran into December.
The administration had been concerned that new sanctions would strengthen hard-liners in Tehran, who would use it as evidence that Obama was either unable or unwilling to strike a deal that would not cross Iran’s “red line” – a refusal to recognise the Islamic Republic’s “right” to enrich uranium within certain limits under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Any strengthening of the hard-liners, it was feared, would force President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, to toughen their terms for a deal, making an agreement with the P5+1 much more difficult to achieve.
Defying pressure from the powerful Israel lobby, several key senators this week indicated they backed delaying action on new or pending sanctions legislation and giving the administration a chance to conclude at least an interim deal that could pave the way to a comprehensive accord on Iran’s nuclear programme within six months to a year.
“I strongly oppose any attempt to increase sanctions against Iran while P5+1 negotiations are ongoing,” said Dianne Feinstein, the influential chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a statement issued Friday.
“The purpose of sanctions was to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they have succeeded in doing so. Tacking new sanctions onto the defence authorisation bill or any other legislation would not lead to a better deal,” she said, echoing several other colleagues, including the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin. “It would lead to no deal at all.”
The administration had hoped to conclude an interim deal last week in Geneva and negotiated a draft agreement in intensive talks between Kerry, the European Union’s (EU) foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Zarif, according to well-informed sources.
But the last-minute intervention by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who reportedly objected to language regarding Iran’s claims to a right to enrichment, as well as the disposition of its yet-to-be-completed Arak heavy-water reactor, resulted in changes in the draft that Zarif was unable to accept without further consultations in Tehran.
Whether Fabius’s objections – which have been variously attributed to pressure from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is home to France’s only military base in the Gulf, as well as inadequate consultation by Washington in its talks with Tehran – have been overcome remains unclear.
Preventing the Senate from approving new sanctions before next week’s negotiations, however, assumed top priority in its Iran diplomacy this past week.
Faced with an all-out campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to depict virtually any interim deal that fell short of completely dismantling Iran’s nuclear programme as a “historic mistake”, the administration held a series of high-level meetings with senators this week.
The goal was to persuade them that the pending accord would not only halt Tehran’s nuclear advances, but would actually roll back some of its key elements, effectively lengthening the time it would take Iran to actually build a weapon if it chose to do so.
Obama himself entered the fray Thursday, insisting during a press conference that any easing of existing sanctions as part of an interim deal would be “very modest” and easily reversible if Iran failed to comply with its end of the bargain.
“…(W)hat I’ve said to members of Congress is that if, in fact, we’re serious about trying to resolve this diplomatically — because no matter how good our military is, military options are always messy, they’re always difficult, always have unintended consequences, and in this situation are never complete in terms of making us certain that they don’t then go out and pursue even more vigorously nuclear weapons in the future — if we’re serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there’s no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective and that brought them to the table in the first place,” Obama said.
Even as Obama was speaking, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), with which Tehran had concluded an enhanced inspection plan earlier in the week, released a new report that found that Iran had slowed its nuclear progress since Rouhani took office in June.
Among other things, IAEA inspectors reported that Iran had not installed any new, highly efficient centrifuges at its Natanz and Fordow enrichment facilities; that its stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium – considered closest to bomb grade – had increased by only five percent over the past four months; and that work on its Arak reactor had slowed significantly.
While the administration did not react officially to the report, it appeared to further confirm to officials and some on Capitol Hill that, contrary to Netanyahu’s increasingly frequent – and sometimes apocalyptic – warnings, Tehran was indeed serious about reaching an agreement that would significantly curb its nuclear programme.
On Friday, pro-Israel hawks lost a major champion when Republican Sen. John McCain told a BBC interviewer that, though he was sceptical about prospects for a satisfactory agreement, he was “willing to give the administration a couple of months” to reach an accord.
An interim agreement, according to Daryl Kimball, executive director of the well-respected Arms Control Association, is likely to include Iran’s agreement to halt all uranium enrichment to 20 percent levels and convert its existing 20 percent stockpile to oxide or lower enrichment levels.
It would also include a freeze on the introduction or operation of additional centrifuges; measures to reduce the proliferation potential of the Arak reactor, such a freeze on the manufacture of fuel assemblies; and acceptance (although not yet ratification) of a stricter IAEA inspection regime.
In exchange for these measures, the P5+1, he told IPS, may ease the current sanctions regime by releasing some Iranian oil sales-related assets that are frozen in other countries; and waiving certain sanctions on trade in gold or precious metals that were put into effect in July and/or on its auto and aircraft industries.
A final agreement, according to Kimball, would likely require Iran to roll back its overall enrichment capacity and ratify the NPT’s Additional Protocol that provides for enhanced IAEA inspections of actual and suspected nuclear facilities in exchange for the P5+1’s recognition in some form that Iran can conduct limited enrichment and a substantial scaling back of oil and financial sanctions.