Iran nuclear talks Day 1: Russian calls Congress an obstacle to a deal

On the first day of renewed talks on Iran's nuclear program, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said sanctions should be eased, terming Congress's firm stance toward Iran 'excessive.'

Alexei Druzhinin/Government Press Service/RIA-Novosti/AP
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (c.) attends a meeting of President Vladimir Putin with the new cabinet in the Kremlin in Moscow, on May 21.

The view is not a new one: that resistance in the US Congress to any kind of compromise with Iran would be the highest hurdle President Obama faced in negotiating a deal with Iran on its nuclear program.

But that perspective burst out onto the international diplomatic stage Wednesday as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov chose the delicate moment of renewed talks between Iran and world powers to publicly advise President Obama to resist congressional pressures in order to make a diplomatic solution on Iran’s nuclear program possible.

“I hope this excessive stance by the US lawmakers will ultimately meet a responsible attitude by the US administration and the US president,” Mr. Lavrov said at a Moscow press conference.

Referring to new unilateral sanctions the US Senate approved this week, Lavrov said, “As Iran takes a step toward the global community, the world community should take steps for weaker sanctions against Iran.”

China also said this week that now, during crucial talks, is no time to be adding to the sanctions on Iran.

Talks between Iran and world powers got under way Wednesday in Baghdad, where early signs emerged that Western objections to quickly easing economic sanctions on Iran under any circumstances were dampening prospects for a breakthrough.

The focus on sanctions pits those – like Lavrov – who say any demands Tehran agrees to should be matched by reciprocal steps from the international community, against those – including much of Congress – who say the only reason Iran has come to the table is to find a way to wiggle out from under stifling sanctions.

A bipartisan group of US senators expressed that latter view in a statement on the eve of the Baghdad talks Tuesday, in which they said “the Iranian regime has come to the negotiating table only because of increasingly crippling pressure from sanctions. Therefore any hope for real diplomatic progress depends upon a continuing and expanding campaign of economic pressure on the Iranian regime.”

The statement, signed by 12 senators, was issued a day after the Senate, unanimously, passed a bill that would impose a new round of sanctions. The actions include a tightening of already approved measures against Iran’s central bank and new sanctions on joint ventures in the energy sector.

In a statement lauding the newest measures, Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey said the Senate “sent a clear message to Iran as it prepares for the … talks in Baghdad: Provide a real and verifiable plan for the complete dismantling of your nuclear weapons program, or Washington will further tighten the economic noose.”

Iran insists its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes, such as civilian power generation and medical research.

The White House so far shows no signs of heeding advice like Lavrov’s and breaking with Congress on Iran. In comments to reporters Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said pressure on Iran would grow until it has gone beyond “promises” to “actions and fulfillment of obligations.”

“We are very clear-eyed about Iranian behavior, and what has taken [place] to get us to this point,” he added, “so we will continue to pressure Tehran, continue to move forward with the sanctions that will be coming online as the year progresses, and we expect those to have the kind of effect on Iran … of making it clear to the regime what the price of a continued failure to meet its obligations will mean for that country and for its economy.”

But such sentiments aside, there are suggestions that the White House and Congress may have differing approaches to the idea of compromise with Iran. One emerging difference is over what, if any, level of uranium enrichment Iran should be allowed to maintain.

Administration officials have suggested that, while Iran’s enrichment to 20 percent purity – a level that technically is not far from the 90-percent enrichment required to create fuel for a nuclear weapon – must stop under any circumstances, the US might accept Iran pursuing the less-threatening 3.5-to-5 percent required for civilian nuclear purposes.

But Congress is by and large taking a “no enrichment, period” stance towards Iran – mirroring the position of the Israeli government.

In their statement Tuesday of the “principles” they said should guide the Baghdad talks, the senators underscored their insistence on no enrichment.

“Given the Iranian regime’s pattern of deceptive and illicit conduct,” they said, “it cannot be trusted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future – at least until the international community has been fully convinced that Iran has genuinely decided to abandon any nuclear weapons ambitions.”  

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