The fresh sanctions drive comes at a time when the administration is exploring the possibility of a diplomatic opening with Iran’s “moderate” new president. With talks on the longstanding nuclear dispute scheduled for October 15 and 16, undersecretary for political affairs Wendy Sherman urged senators to hold off.
“We do believe it would helpful for you all to at least allow this meeting to happen on the 15th and 16th of October before moving forward to consider those new sanctions,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sherman said she wanted to be able to tell the Iranians, “This is your opportunity, come on the 15th October, with concrete, substantive actions that you will take; commitments you will make in a verifiable way; monitoring and verification that you will live up to create some faith that there is reality to this, and our Congress will listen.
“But I can assure you, if you do not come on the 15th and 16th with that substantive plan that is real and verifiable, our Congress will take action and we will support them to do so.”
Up to now, State Department spokespeople have declined to comment on the legislation, saying simply that the administration would continue “working with Congress” on the matter.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), sponsor of the bill which passed in the House by a 400-20 vote last July, described the call as “troubling,” saying it was only because of sanctions pressure that Iran was considering negotiating in the first place.
“I strongly encourage the Senate to pass sanctions legislation now,” he said in a statement reacting to Sherman’s request. “It is critical that we increase the pressure on Iran to increase our negotiating leverage and deny Tehran the resources to continue its nuclear program.”
“Before we slow down on sanctions, we must see actions – not simply talk – from Iran,” Royce said. “Iran is only at the table because of our economic pressure. Why fool with success?”
H.R. 850, which is before the Senate Banking Committee, would compel buyers of Iranian crude to further reduce their combined purchases, by one million barrels per day, within one year; broaden the range of targeted sectors of Iran’s economy; bar entry to U.S. ports of any ship registered in a country that also registers Iranian vessels; and tighten penalties on human rights abusers.
Iran insists that its nuclear program – which it hid from the international community for almost two decades before exposure by opponents of the regime in 2002 – is peaceful, designed only for research and domestic power-generation purposes.
Western governments believe it is a cover for an effort to acquire nuclear weapons capability; the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has over several years found evidence that Iran has carried out activities relevant to a weapons program.
Iran points to the fact the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permits all nations to develop nuclear programs for peaceful purposes but the U.S. and its allies worry that Tehran could acquire all of the components needed for an atomic weapon, but stop short of actually assembling one and so remain within the bounds of the NPT. From that point – “breakout” – making a weapons would be a quick and relatively easy achievement.
In Geneva on October 15, Sherman and other members of the “P5+1” (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) will be holding talks with a delegation led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
“We will be looking for specific steps by Iran that address core issues, including but not limited to the pace and scope of its enrichment program, the transparency of its overall nuclear program and stockpiles of enriched uranium,” Sherman told the committee.
“The Iranians, in return, will doubtless be seeking some relief from the comprehensive international sanctions that are now in place.”
One non-negotiable for Iran has been its right under the NPT to enrich uranium on its own soil, for its civilian program. But because of the suspicions of its real agenda, four U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2006 have demanded that Tehran suspend “all” enrichment-related activities.
Sherman on Thursday confirmed that “we do not believe there is an inherent right [in the NPT], by anyone, to enrichment.”
But she declined to say categorically that the administration could not envisage a deal that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium domestically.
Replying to a question by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), she said, “I am not going to negotiate in public, senator, with all due respect. All I can do is repeat what the president of the United States has said, which is ‘we respect the right of the Iranian people to access peaceful nuclear energy in the context of Iran meeting its obligations.’”
One senior member of the administration who has differed with the absolutely-no-enrichment position is Secretary of State John Kerry, although it was a stance he aired in the context of criticizing the Bush administration, and before he assumed his current post.
In a 2009 Financial Times interview the-then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called the Bush administration’s demand that Iran stop enriching uranium altogether “ridiculous” and an example of “bombastic diplomacy.”
A Security Council resolution passed in 2010 – under the administration Kerry now represents – also contained the demand that Iran suspend “all” enrichment-related activities.
One specific provision of H.R. 850 likely to trouble the administration gives the secretary of state 30 days to determine whether Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) should be designated a “foreign terrorist organization.”
The IRGC is a key element of the Iranian establishment, with major military and economic clout, with deep ties to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
President Obama after his recent phone conversation with President Hasan Rouhani referred to the possibility of “a new relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran – one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.” FTO designation of an official entity of that regime would not play well in Tehran.
When the U.S. Senate in 2007 considered FTO designation for the IRGC, opponents included the four senators who are now president, vice-president, secretary of state and secretary of defense. (Kerry’s predecessor at State, Hillary Clinton, supported the measure.)