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Washington's Warmongers Take Aim At Iran Diplomacy

Congressional hawks are trying to scuttle a nuclear deal between the United States and Iran by pushing for sanctions.

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Hardliners in Tehran are not happy with the recent rapprochement between the United States and Iran and the related progress in negotiations to address Western concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. But the bigger threat may come from hardliners in the Washington, including prominent congressional Democrats.

As the first step in a de-escalation deal whose details have yet to be worked out, Iran would agree to strict safeguards to prevent the enrichment of uranium to a degree that could be used for the development of nuclear weapons. In return, the United States would agree to a partial lifting of economic sanctions. Further lessening of sanctions would be dependent on further Iranian concessions.

A bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill, however, opposes even this modest first step. The group is pushing legislation that would make such an interim agreement impossible.

Responding to Reform in Iran

The election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president this summer sent a clear message that the Iranian people wanted to end the country’s isolation and improve relations with the United States by negotiating a mutually agreeable settlement.  A senior administration official who has been at the center of the talks for more than two years noted how he had “never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before,” adding, “I would say we really are beginning that type of negotiation where one could imagine that you could possibly have an agreement.”

Unfortunately, rather than respond positively to Rouhani’s election, the U.S. House of Representatives—just two days before his inauguration in August—voted by an overwhelming 400-20 margin to impose punitive new sanctions on Iran. The measures targets Iran’s foreign reserves and attempts to end all Iranian oil sales by 2015, with the goal of plunging the country into a debilitating economic depression. It was a bipartisan rejection of the new president’s offer to enhance nuclear transparency and pursue “peace and reconciliation” with the West.

A large group of U.S. experts on Iran and former officials—as well as Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) and 15 other members of Congress—urged leaders in the House of Representatives to delay the vote until after Rouhani was inaugurated and had a chance to lead the nuclear negotiations.  As Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) noted, “Why aren’t we at least curious to find out whether or not President Rouhani means that he wants to pursue this course of peace?” Yet House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer joined Republican leaders in pushing through the punitive sanctions bill despite the risks of sabotaging talks that could offer the best chance to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

That same day, a bipartisan group of 76 senators—more than three-quarters of the upper chamber—in an apparent effort to poison the atmosphere on the eve of Rouhani’s inauguration, signed  a letter to President Obama demanding “the maintenance and toughening of sanctions” and “a convincing threat of the use of force.”

Senate Pushback

The Obama administration has been trying to prevent the Senate from taking up the bill. Particularly in light of the  positive developments of recent weeks, the administration doesn’t want to alienate U.S. allies and disrupt hopes for a diplomatic solution.  Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator in the talks with Iran, called for a delay in imposing any new sanctions on Iran to see how the talks progress, saying, “We think that this is a time for a pause, to see if these negotiations can gain traction.”

However, in the lead-up to the next round of Geneva talks, a bipartisan group of 10 influential senators—including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ)—signed a letter calling for a harder line on sanctions. Menendez and his hawkish colleagues have expressed a willingness to delay passing the increased sanctions that passed the House, but only if Iran fully suspends its nuclear reprocessing, which is an unrealistic demand at this stage. Nuclear enrichment and reprocessing for civilian nuclear energy is permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but these senators insist that an exception be made for Iran. By contrast, the Obama administration appears willing to allow limited Iranian nuclear enrichment, though with strict guarantees that the enrichment level would be low enough so that it could only be used for civilian purposes and not to develop nuclear weapons, a proposal that Sen.  Mark Kirk (R-IL) insists constitutes “appeasement.”

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