Obama officials ask Congress to delay new Iran sanctions

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The Obama administration is asking Congress to delay new economic sanctions on Iran in order to give momentum to negotiations on a possible nuclear compromise.

“We think that this is a time for a pause [in new sanctions], to see if these negotiations can gain traction,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the Voice of America Persian Service in an interview Friday.

Members of Congress have “been very effective partners as we’ve tried to approach this negotiation,” she said. “We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be.”

Three White House officials—Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, Phil Gordon, the National Security Staff Coordinator for the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and NSS Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs Puneet Talwar – met with aides to Senate leaders on Thursday to press for a delay in new Iran sanctions legislation being considered by the Senate Banking Committee, a Senate staffer said.

Sherman also briefed House leaders earlier this week on her negotiations with Iran and other members of the P5+1 in Geneva last week.

Diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 are due to hold another round of negotiations in Geneva November 7-8.

Technical talks involving nuclear and sanctions experts from Iran and the P5+1 will be held in Vienna October 30-31, the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Friday.

The US team to the technical talks in Vienna will include Sherman’s deputy and top advisor on arms control issues James Timbie, State Department deputy Iran sanctions official Richard Nephew, who previously served at the NSC and Energy Department; and Treasury Department sanctions office chief Adam Szubin, US officials told Al-Monitor. (Meantime, State Department Iran sanctions czar Daniel Fried was in Europe this week for consultations with European counterparts on the EU sanctions regime.) Iran’s delegation to the Vienna talks will be led by Hamid Baidinejad, the Iran Foreign Ministry director of political and international development, Nasim reported, adding that the Iranian team will include legal, nuclear, technical and economic experts.

Israeli diplomats, in Washington for consultations this week, urged their US counterparts to press for a deal that would dismantle as much as possible of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including its entire domestic enrichment program. They also pressed for no let-up in existing sanctions for nuclear concessions that Iran might agree to make in an interim deal, including suspending 20% enrichment.

“Nuclear energy without enrichment is the only reasonable compromise,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Al-Monitor Tuesday. Iran is entitled to “civilian nuclear energy. …The only request, is that they buy nuclear fuel from” abroad.

Iranian diplomats told their P5+1 counterparts at meetings in Geneva this month that they would be willing to discuss various elements of Iran’s nuclear program to find a compromise to address international concerns, but did not offer a very concrete, detailed proposal, several diplomats said.

The P5+1 have asked Iran to bring a more concrete proposal to the next meetings, the diplomatic sources said.

Sherman, in her VOA interview, also seemed to express regret for her comments at a Senate hearing last month that deception is in the Iranian DNA.

“I chose some words in response to a member of the Senate that I think caused some concern,” Sherman told VOA’s Siamak Dehghanpour. “And I think that those words spoke to this deep mistrust that President [Barack] Obama [has] discussed… We have to really work to get over that mistrust, and I think these nuclear negotiations will help us to do so.”

Israel Intel Minister: Not pessimistic about Iran deal

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Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Tuesday that he believes Iran is “serious” about wanting to make a nuclear deal to save its economy. But he pressed for no let-up in economic pressure unless Iran agrees to terms for a deal that many US national security experts believe could preclude a diplomatic compromise.

“I think they are serious,” Steinitz, speaking to al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday, said of the Iranians. “They want an agreement.”

But the deal they are aiming for, he said, is a “North Korea-type,” under which Iran would freeze, rather than dismantle, major elements of its nuclear program, and offer “better inspections procedures.”

“Nuclear energy without enrichment is the only reasonable compromise,” he said.

Steinitz was in Washington leading an Israeli delegation attending two days of high-level talks with US counterparts as part of the US-Israel Strategic Dialogue. US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman addressed the gathering Wednesday, the State Department said.

Sherman led the US delegation to P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva last week in which the Iranians “were saying they are ready to discuss” various elements of a potential nuclear compromise, Steinitz said. Though their proposal was not very detailed, Steinitz said he understood, he said he did not interpret that necessarily as a sign of lack of seriousness.

“I am not pessimistic,” Steinitz said. Iran's economic problems have brought Iranian leaders to realize they have a “dilemma,” he said. “If it’s put to them, ‘Look, the time to maneuver… is over. After ten years of negotiations… enough is enough. You have to make a decision. You want to save the Iranian economy? You have to give up your military nuclear project on all its components. You choose to continue with your military nuclear program? You will destroy the Iranian economy,” or face possible military action.

Steinitz, in the interview, argued against any sort of interim deal that might offer Iran an easing of sanctions in exchange for nuclear concessions. The concern, he said, is that once any sanctions are eased, the entire sanctions regime will crumble, and won’t be able to be ramped back up if Iran backslides on the agreement.

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U.S. negotiator to brief Congress on Iran talks

Lead U.S. Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is expected to brief Congressional leaders and relevant committee chiefs in classified session this week on the talks between six world powers and Iran held in Geneva last week.

In a brief conversation last week that did not delve into the details of the Iranian proposal, Sherman told House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel “that the Iranians appeared serious,” but cautioned that the “devil’s in the details and made clear that the US negotiators will remain clear eyed as they seek to negotiate a deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” Engel said in a statement.

“Ranking Member Engel was pleased that the P5+1 reportedly had a productive first round of negotiations with the Iranians in Geneva,” spokesman Daniel Harsha told Al-Monitor Monday.  “But a change in tone is hardly sufficient. He believes pressure brought Iran to the table, and that pressure must be maintained until Iran has verifiably dismantled its nuclear weapons program.“

“The Iranians are masters at negotiation for the sake of buying time,” Harsha said.  “Given that, Ranking Member Engel would only be open to freezing further legislative action on the new sanctions bill if Iran quickly takes a number of concrete and fully verifiable steps to freeze enrichment and other elements of its nuclear weapons program. And he won’t even consider easing sanctions already on the books until Iran verifiably dismantles their program, leaving absolutely no possibility of a rapid ‘breakout.’”

Diplomats from the six world powers and Iran have agreed not to publicize the details of the Iranian proposal presented in two days of talks in Geneva last week (Oct. 15-16).

The new Iranian proposal “appears to have addressed some of our concerns, while leaving others unaddressed,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday. “That is what the upcoming talks will further flesh out. …[The process] has begun and now we need to see what the coming weeks will bring.”

Iran's deputy nuclear negotiators for the first time met with their US counterparts one on one for an hour in Geneva, and conducted the negotiations with their P5+1 counterparts in English, facilitating the pace and candor of the negotiations, western diplomats said.

But western diplomats were cautious in characterizing their reaction to the undisclosed Iranian proposal, describing a deal as still likely some ways off.

“We learned more about their program and their concerns,” a senior western diplomat told journalists in Brussels last week, Reuters reported. “However, it doesn't mean we are close to a solution and that we will have an agreement next month.”

We “got more today than we have ever gotten before, but there’s still a whole lot more we have to get,” a senior US administration official told journalists in Geneva last week, calling the process a “beginning.”

Regarding the seemingly lukewarm reaction, the US official said Monday to keep in mind that it’s not in the P5+1’s interest to sound overly enthusiastic about what the Iranians put on the table, “either from a negotiating perspective….or our own domestic politics.”

The administration would be “concerned about not looking gullible to Congress,” agreed Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official now with the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, in an interview Monday. Continue reading