After Nuclear Talks, Rubio Moves to Preempt Any Softening on Iran Sanctions

By Patrick Goodenough | October 17, 2013 | 4:02am EDT

U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman takes part in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran in Geneva, on Tuesday October 15, 2013. (UN Photo/Violaine Martin)

( – The top U.S. nuclear negotiator will brief Congress on Iran’s latest offer in international talks on its nuclear programs, but the State Department won’t say yet whether the proposal was “substantive” enough for the administration to ask lawmakers, again, to hold off on tightening sanctions.

Not waiting to hear its verdict, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a resolution Wednesday calling for existing sanctions to remain in place – and for additional ones to be added.

“No one should be impressed by what Iran appears to have brought to the table in Geneva,” he said, adding that “Tehran has broken its word far too many times to be trusted.”

“Due to its complete disregard for previous international agreements, we must take a firm stand in all negotiations regarding the nuclear capabilities Iran is permitted to retain.”

Early this month, undersecretary of state for political affairs Wendy Sherman asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to delay movement on new legislation toughening sanctions until this week’s talks in Geneva. She indicated at the time that if Iran did not come up with “a substantive plan that is real and verifiable,” then the administration would support further congressional action.

Sherman led the U.S. delegation during the two days of “P5+1” talks with Iran, at the end of which a senior administration official, speaking on background, gave an optimistic assessment of how things had gone.

“Over the past two days, we’ve had serious and substantive discussions with our P5 counterparts and with Iran,” the official said in Geneva on Wednesday night. “We had detailed technical discussions at a level we have not had before. And we discussed concrete steps and actions that are necessary for Iran to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program.”

The senior official said once Congress had been briefed, lawmakers would “make their own decisions about how best to proceed.”

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked whether the Iranian offer had been sufficient for the administration to ask Congress to continue to hold off on the sanctions legislation.

“I don’t have a prediction of that at this point,” she replied.

“Undersecretary Sherman will come back and she’ll brief Congress and she’ll have discussions with the national security team about what happened, and we’ll make determinations about what we do moving forward, as will all the other P5+1 countries.”

The P5+1 group – the U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany – has agreed to hold a further round of talks with Iran on November 7-8, and for technical experts to meet before then.

Right to a peaceful program vs. right to enrichment

When Sherman testified before the Senate panel in early October, one issue she declined to discuss was whether the administration could envisage an agreement that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium at home. In response to a question from Rubio she said she did not intend to “negotiate in public.”

The issue has long been a non-negotiable for Iran, but equally, the U.N. Security Council has passed four resolutions since 2006 demanding that Tehran suspend “all” enrichment-related activities.

Iran insists that under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) it has the right to enrich uranium on its own soil, for its civilian program. The U.S. government views the NPT as giving countries the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program, but not an inherent right to enrichment.

During Wednesday night’s background briefing in Geneva, the senior administration official was asked about the possibility that Iran’s central “right to enrichment” demand may be recognized, but demurred.

“I’m not going to directly answer your first question because to do so would be for me to tell you the details of the discussions we had, and I’m not going to do that.”

The resolution introduced by Rubio states that “Iran does not have an absolute or inherent right to enrichment and reprocessing technologies” under the NPT.

The sanctions legislation now before a Senate committee passed in the House of Representatives by a 400-20 vote last July. A key provision would compel Iranian oil customers to further reduce their purchases, by a total one million barrels per day, within a year.

Ahead of the talks in Geneva, a bipartisan group of 10 senior senators in a letter to President Obama linked their stance on the new sanctions directly with Iranian action to implement Security Council resolutions agreement, including “immediate suspension of all enrichment activity.”

“If the Iranian government takes these steps in a verifiable and transparent manner, we are willing to match Iran’s good-faith actions by suspending the implementation of the next round of sanctions currently under consideration by the Congress,” they wrote.

“In short, the U.S. should consider, with the other members of the P5+1, a ‘suspension for suspension’ initial agreement – in which Iran suspends enrichment and the U.S. suspends the implementation of new sanctions.”

The senators also tackled head-on Iran’s claim to a “right” to enrich at home.

“[T]his is not a prerequisite for a peaceful nuclear energy program,” they said. “Countries from Canada, to Mexico and South Africa benefit from peaceful nuclear energy programs, without indigenous enrichment programs.  Iran does have a right to a peaceful nuclear energy program; it does not have a right to enrichment.”

Signatories included Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J), Appropriations Committee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and four Republicans on the Armed Service Committee, Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) and Roy Blunt (Mo.).

Congress urged not to ‘interfere’

Senators from both parties in the past have been willing to confront the administration over the question of sanctions.

In 2011, 92 senators signed a letter urging the White House to target the Central Bank of Iran and despite the administration’s opposition to the move it was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed by a 100-0 vote and was signed into law late that year.

The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington-based group supportive of engagement with Tehran, issued a statement Wednesday urging Congress not to “interfere.”

“New sanctions legislation would sabotage this promising but fragile process,” it said. “The Senate must not complicate the talks by tying the hands of the president or undermining confidence that the U.S. can reciprocate in these negotiations.”

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