Negotiations with Iran are set to resume in Geneva on January 18, and with a new deadline for an agreement looming, returning lawmakers are poised to make a move toward additional sanctions. Republicans may choose to hold off until signs of a breakdown in negotiations have surfaced, but others have suggested that a bill could move more quickly. On the Sunday before Congress reconvened for the new year, Sen. Corker said that a bill would be expected to move through “regular order” in the banking committee, but did not imply that would happen immediately. His answer when asked about timing was, “we’ll see.” But Sen. Graham has suggested that a bill will be taken up in January.
The US and its allies are meeting with Iran this week to begin to sketch out the terms of a final deal. The five-day meeting in Vienna, Austria will be the longest since November, and could begin to shed light on potential solutions to some of the most contentious issues still left to decide.
Since the implementation of the interim deal in January, Iran has halted the most sensitive aspects of its nuclear program, reduced its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, and shown willingness to compromise on issues such as plutonium output at Iran’s heavy water reactor Arak. These steps combined with positive statements from the European Union’s Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has some hopeful that a deal might just around the corner. But with many more issues left to resolve, onlookers should restrain their “irrational exuberance” and not be surprised to see a six month extension of the talks come July.
Andrew Szarejko has a rundown of proposals for a final deal here. Some of the most complicated issues include Iran’s ongoing research and development, both on nuclear centrifuges and ballistic missile technology and the duration and timeline of both sanctions relief and ongoing restrictions on Iran.
But if and when a deal is struck, there will be heavy lifting ahead back home.
The Obama administration will be faced with the task of convincing Congress to roll back sanctions, and hardliners in Iran will oppose almost any deal that is seen as a compromise with the United States.
But there are some signs that Congress, at least, is beginning to come around to the idea of a deal. Make no mistake, even the best deal will be a tough sell on Capitol Hill, and some will continue to oppose anything short of Iran’s complete capitulation. (If you need a refresher on why that’s a stupid idea, Colin Kahl does a great job of explaining it here.) But while just a year ago, nearly any vote coming down hard on Iran would have enjoyed substantial majority support in both houses of Congress, a recent vote in the House Armed Services Committee showed a split in U.S. hardliners’ ranks.
The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) offered by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) expresses a nonbinding “sense of Congress” that sanctions should not be lifted unless the deal includes the complete dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program and an end to the country’s state sponsorship of terrorism. But such ideas, which once sounded attractive to a less-informed Congress, are now largely understood to be a poison pill.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the ranking Democrat on the committee, spoke out strongly against the amendment.
“This is a very bad idea,” said Smith. “It completely ties the hands of our negotiators … by setting out very specific criteria that have to be met before a deal can be achieved, going well beyond the nuclear question.”
Such talk would have been political suicide just a year ago, but Democrats have largely coalesced around the President’s position, and they’ve brought some Republicans along with them.
Though the amendment ultimately passed by voice vote, the panel was clearly split.
With a rising chorus of champions and divisions on Capitol Hill, Congressional sanctions relief, once considered impossible, may now be the best course for enforcement of an eventual deal – as opposed to depending on the Obama administration’s limited (and temporary) ability to waive sanctions.
This week, OtherWords published a piece I wrote alongside Lt. General (USA, Ret) Robert Gard on the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” policy toward North Korea. Here is an excerpt:
It’s time to put North Korea back on the foreign policy agenda and re-engage it in serious and responsible negotiations.
Given Chinese support for North Korea, heavy sanctions won’t compel Kim Jong Un to comply with American preferences or engage in negotiations on dictated terms. However much the United States may detest the authoritarian North Korean regime, it’s in America’s interest to engage in a dialogue to protect its national security and that of its Asian allies.
Refusing to negotiate with the North Koreans unless they make concessions dictated by Washington is counterproductive. Watchful waiting simply results in further advances in the North Korean nuclear weapons program, making America and its allies less secure. Kim Jong Un is willing to talk, and it’s in America’s interest to pick up the phone and call him.
Read the full piece here.
Sen. Robert Menendez, Chairman of SFRC, took to the Senate floor yesterday to express his concerns about the current path forward on Iran, both in the administration and in the Senate. In a long and detailed speech, Menendez chastised the administration for its use of the term “war-mongering,” criticized the Joint Plan of Action, and stated his disinterest in playing partisan politics.
The key message in President Obama’s State of the Union speech earlier this week was that the President is willing to take action this year – with or without the support of a recalcitrant Congress. While the bulk of his discussion focused on executive action on economic issues, President Obama made it clear that this mindset also applies to Iran, an issue that has embroiled both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue in an ongoing fight over new sanctions and the direction of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
By all indications it looks like the Senate will be holding off on new Iran sanctions, at least for the time being. Whether this means the rest of 2013 or the first six months of 2014 has yet to be seen. One report seems to imply that Senate Democrats have decided to side with the President on the issue, and statements from many top Democrats in recent days would suggest that’s the case.
Guest post by Alex Bollfrass
Below is a summary of remarks made on 2/24 at Princeton University by Hossein Mousavian, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005.
Hossein Mousavian, Iran’s lead negotiator from 2003 to 2005, presented his vision for a resolution to the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program. In his first public statement since his 2007 arrest, Ambassador Mousavian laid out a plan for political and diplomatic engagement with Iran.
The ex-negotiator described a space for mutual agreement that would respect the US redline of Iranian nuclear weapons and Iran’s non-negotiable right to uranium enrichment.
Without straying far from the official Iranian position, he argued for direct bilateral and comprehensive negotiations between Iran and the United States, while recommending the continued pursuit of P5+1 negotiations. The proper institutional setting, in his view, is the IAEA. The UN Security Council’s involvement and its punitive resolutions should be ended.
Mousavian emphasized that any solution would require the international recognition of Iran’s right to nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment. Iran would also need the provision of security assurances not only from the United States, but regional countries, as well…
Inside Iranian decision-making
In his rhetorical warm-up, he hypothesized that if the shah had remained in power, Iran would today have an arsenal of nuclear weapons. In his view, the West “owes a debt of gratitude to the Islamic Republic” for its restraint on the nuclear front over the past 30 years.
He mourned the lost opportunity for an agreement during President Khatamei’s presidency, which the former negotiator blamed on the Bush administration’s hard line and the West’s misreading of Iran’s suspension of uranium enrichment as a sign that it could be pushed to surrender its right to enrichments.
Mousavian identified Ayatollah Khomenei as the ultimate decision-maker on Iranian national security questions, and as having driven the harder line in Iran’s confrontation with the international community upon Ahmedinejad’s election. In a glimpse into the mode of operation in Iran’s government, the ambassador confessed that he had only learned of the Qom uranium enrichment when President Obama revealed it in September 2009 at the G8 meeting in Pittsburgh.
In a review of the P5+1’s options, he described the counterproductive effects of military strikes for the entire region. Sanctions have also failed to prevent Iran from developing missile and nuclear technology, while serving the interests of Iranian hardliners. He also argued that the sabotage of Iran’s nuclear facility and assassination of nuclear scientists only raised distrust among Iranians and strengthening the arguments for the development of a nuclear deterrent.
Only diplomacy, in his view, holds promise for a resolution. However, so far the Obama and Ahmedinejad administrations diplomatic attempts have yielded no results because neither has proposed a comprehensive solution.
Mousavian argued that the US should engage Iran directly beyond the nuclear issue and build trust through cooperation on Afghanistan. He saw the UN Security Council’s involvement as counterproductive, in particular its use of sanctions, and as an obstacle to resolution. Therefore, the Iranian issue should be taken off the Security Council’s agenda and placed within the IAEA.
The NPT would serve as the basic framework to guarantee Iran’s right to enrichment and Iran’s fatwa against nuclear weapons should be taken as an assurance. However, he underlined that Iran would accept no inspections or restrictions that went beyond what is required of other NPT signatories.
Under Mousavian’s plan, there would be two steps of the regional component of engagement. The first would be engagement with the Persian Gulf states. This framework would later be expanded to the broader Middle East in an effort to establish an OSCE-type regional organization. In a veiled reference to Israel’s nuclear weapon, Mousavian called for the elimination of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East as part of this regional integration.
In response to a question about Iran’s insistence on uranium enrichment despite its lack of reactors that could put this fuel to use, Mousavian cited Western and Russian abrogation of past agreements for the provision of nuclear technology and fuel.
Persona non grata in Iran
Following Ahmedinejad’s election in 2005, Mousavian was removed from his position on Iran’s negotiating team with the P5+1 and the IAEA. Two years later, the Iranian government arrested Mousavian on espionage charges. Despite most charges having been dropped, he received a commuted sentence and barred from serving in the diplomatic corps. Mousavian then left the country for the West.
He has been a fellow at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security for a year and a half. In poor standing with the Iranian regime, he would likely face arrest if he returned.
Alex Bollfrass is the NoH Senior New Jersey correspondent and a graduate student at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs.