Foes of an Iran nuclear deal refocus on containing the damage

Realizing they cannot prevent an interim nuclear deal from being reached in Geneva, opponents now are looking to ensure that a 'bad deal' doesn't open a door to Iran getting a nuclear weapon.

Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/AP
A general view shows participants before the start of three days of closed-door nuclear talks in Geneva, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013.

Opponents and skeptics of an interim nuclear deal being negotiated with Iran are gearing up to ensure that what they fear will be a “bad deal” does not become the means through which Iran obtains a nuclear weapon.

Deal naysayers acknowledge that neither Congress nor the vociferous protestations of a high-profile critic like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can scuttle an accord that world powers agree upon. So attention is already turning to ways to ensure that Iran face immediate consequences if it fails to abide by the provisions of any such agreement.

The six world powers meeting with Iran in Geneva reported no progress Thursday in narrowing the remaining differences between the two sides, while some Iranian officials suggested that if anything the gaps might have widened since the two sides last met earlier this month.

But that apparent lack of progress did not stop some members of Congress from meeting with administration officials at the White House to express their misgivings. At least one Republican senator announced that he was proposing legislation to force the immediate reinstatement of any lightened sanctions on Iran upon any evidence of Iran not abiding by the terms of a first-step deal.

An interim deal with Iran would be designed to freeze progress in Iran’s nuclear program while a comprehensive agreement verifiably stopping Iran’s program short of a nuclear weapon could be worked out. Opponents appear to be most concerned that a short-term plan accepting some level of uranium enrichment – a process that can result in the fuel for a nuclear weapon – would turn into permanent acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich.

“The Iranian nuclear program has been fundamentally a weapons program from the beginning, and I don’t see that changing – certainly not if we go with an interim deal” that accepts uranium enrichment, says John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations who is a prominent critic of the Obama administration’s Iran diplomacy.

Such a deal would be “fatally flawed,” he adds, because with the lack of any vision for what a final plan should look like the risks are great that an interim accord “becomes permanent” – enshrining Iran’s enrichment program and leaving Iran on a path to a nuclear weapon.

Fears that an interim deal could simply evolve into a permanent deal – and one leaving Iran with an operating enrichment program – prompted Sen. Bob Corker, (R) of Tennessee, to introduce legislation Thursday “to keep the pressure on Iran” in the period between a first-step and a final deal.

The bill would put off any additional lifting of sanctions – beyond what the White House says would be “limited and reversible” sanctions relief as part of an interim deal – until after Iran agreed to the “essential terms of an acceptable final deal,” Senator Corker says. The legislation also calls for any sanctions lifted as part of an interim deal to “snap back” in the event of any violation of the deal’s obligations, he adds.

In order to get substantial US sanctions relief as part of a final agreement, Iran would have to verifiably “eliminate the threat of its nuclear program,” Corker says.

Even as negotiations were under way in Geneva, the White House continued to brief members of Congress in an effort to head off debilitating criticism should a deal be reached.

One member of a delegation invited to the White House Thursday, Rep. Brad Sherman (D) of California, says he “remains a skeptic” that a good interim deal is possible. But he says he left the meeting, which he said was attended by 10 Democratic representatives, “a little more convinced that they [in the administration] are focused on getting this right” and not above all on getting any deal.

Earlier in the day, Representative Sherman had cut short his attendance at a Capitol Hill meeting of Iranian dissidents addressing the plight of Iranian refugees in Iraq, telling a cheering crowd that he had to leave for the White House “to convince them not to accept a bad deal in Geneva.”

After the White House meeting, Sherman said, “I still fear they would be willing to enter a deal that [to them] would be better than no deal at all” – echoing a charge leveled against President Obama not just by other members of Congress but also by French leaders, who are also involved in the Geneva talks.

“But after what I heard,” he added, “I’m a little less concerned about that than I was before.”

Sherman says a key challenge after an interim deal – and one reason he never favored the idea of a “first step” before a comprehensive agreement – will be the thinking expected to bloom in international business circles “that it’s OK to do business with Iran now.”  

To battle such trends and to keep the pressure up on Iran, Sherman says he and other members of the House will continue to press the Senate to proceed with considering a new round of sanctions. The point, he says, would be to keep Iran motivated to reach a comprehensive agreement on its nuclear program.

More ardent critics of the administration’s Iran diplomacy say any rush into a “bad deal” won’t just leave Iran’s nuclear challenge unaddressed, but could embroil Obama in another losing political battle.

Americans largely favor reaching a diplomatic solution with Iran, polls show, but, critics add, that doesn’t mean that an Iran allowed to continue moving toward a nuclear weapon is acceptable.

“I think the administration is set on getting some deal, I think they’d really like to have an issue that takes the spotlight off of Obamacare for a while,” says Mr. Bolton, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “But if they go with a deal with such deficiencies that the opposition here in Washington is swift and sustained, they’re not going to get that.”

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