Iran nuclear talks: Will 'bad cop' Congress approve a deal?

Smiles abounded after world powers ended talks this week with Iran on its nuclear program. US officials will have to win over skeptical members of Congress and key US allies if there is to be a deal.

Martial Trezzini/AP
Switzerland's Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, left, speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, during a meeting outside of closed-door nuclear talks in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013.

Iran and world powers ended this week’s talks on Iran’s nuclear program with smiles, a rare joint statement that raises hopes for a diplomatic resolution of the standoff, and a pledge to meet again early next month to begin hammering out an actual deal.

Now, over to the bad cops.

Senior US diplomats at the Geneva talks that wrapped up Wednesday said they will take the details of what was discussed – in particular the specifics of Iran’s proposed step-by-step plan for easing international concerns about its nuclear activities – to Congress and to worried US allies, including Israel.

The reception there is likely to be far less smiley – especially if, as expected, Iran is proposing rapid relief from the tough international sanctions pounding its economy in exchange for any steps it would take to curtail its enrichment activity or open up its nuclear facilities to intrusive inspections by international experts.

“Congress feels very strongly, as do all of us, that Iran must not acquire a nuclear weapon,” said a senior administration official at the close of the Geneva talks. “I look forward to that discussion with Congress … about how we can best proceed forward after these detailed discussions.”

Calling consultations with US allies and partners including Israel “very, very important,” the official added that updates with those partners will intensify in the days leading up to the next round of talks between Iran and six world powers – the US, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – set for Nov. 7 and 8.

The State Department announced Thursday that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Europe next week for meetings that will include consultations on the Iran talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal.

Yet despite the administration’s assurances of a common objective with Congress and key allies – no Iranian bomb – disagreements over how to get there are likely to surface very soon, especially over sanctions and any proposals for reducing them as part of any deal with Iran.

If anything Congress – echoing Mr. Netanyahu’s tough stance, which rejects any sanctions relief until after Iran first takes verifiable steps to dismantle its nuclear program – is demanding additional sanctions, not envisioning a lightening of the load.

“No one should be impressed by what Iran appears to have brought to the table in Geneva,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida said in a statement Wednesday introducing a new sanctions resolution.

Senator Rubio’s view that “now is not the time to suspend sanctions but to increase them on the Iranian regime” reflects the sentiment of a letter Sens. Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, sent to President Obama before this week’s talks in which they called for “the maintenance and toughening of sanctions” as part of the US strategy for addressing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Iran is not a friend whose word can be taken as a promise,” the two senators said.

Those hawkish views could spell trouble for the administration’s negotiators in the Iran talks by placing a lock on any flexibility for meeting any Iranian confidence-building steps – agreeing to significantly reduce the number of centrifuges it has spinning uranium as part of its enrichment program, for example – with reciprocal sanctions relief. 

Easing of the more onerous economic sanctions Iran wants to see reduced or removed would take congressional action. But there is little indication that the administration and Congress see eye-to-eye on the steps Iran would have to take to merit any scaling back of sanctions.

Senator Menendez has said Iran must abandon all uranium enrichment activity, for example – a position held by Netanyahu – while the administration has suggested Iran has a right to a peaceful civilian nuclear program. That position suggests the US might accept low-level enrichment activity.

Nuclear power generation requires uranium enriched to less than 5 percent purity. But Iran has created a stockpile of 20-percent-enriched uranium – a level just a few technical steps shy of bomb-grade uranium –saying it needs the higher grade for a medical research facility.

The sanctions standoff in Washington could throw a wrench in the works of the international negotiations with Iran. But some experts see a way both to maintain the sanctions that many believe have been instrumental in bringing Iran to the table in the first place, and to provide Iran with enough financial relief to keep it interested in reaching an accord on its nuclear program.

The “carrot” the US could present is the $50 billion in foreign-held cash that Iran holds but to which it currently has very limited access. In essence, Iran could be paid with its own money for verifiable concessions on its nuclear program, says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.

The attractiveness of this idea is that it would leave sanctions in place until Iran has taken enough verifiable steps reversing its nuclear progress to satisfy Congress, while leaving the US the option of rewarding Tehran for interim confidence-building steps, according to Mr. Dubowitz.

Leaving the sanctions in place would not just satisfy Congress but would also reinforce the administration’s insistence to skeptics of its Iran diplomacy that it has no intention of rewarding Iran with quick sanctions relief for modest and reversible measures.

As the senior administration official said in Geneva, “Congress has been a very significant partner inputting [the] sanctions regime and architecture in place. None of us want to undo it before we know we have some results that answer our concerns.”

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