Five Senators sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday warning the administration not to offer concessions in upcoming talks with Iran over its nuclear program. If Obama takes the advice, experts say, it could sink his engagement efforts with Tehran.
The letter (PDF, with full text below), broken by Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin, calls for zero enrichment on Iranian soil as a U.S. pre-condition for any negotiated deal to end Iran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear program.
“[G]iven the government of Iran’s patterns of deception and noncooperation, its government cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future,” said the letter. “We would strongly oppose any proposal for diplomat endgame in which Iran is permitted to continue these activities in any form.”
But the Iranians have placed a high priority on domestic enrichment, and would likely oppose a deal precluding such activity. Iran denies accusations from the West that eventual weaponization is the goal of its nuclear program, which is widely considered a point of Iranian national pride.
Even some U.S.-based non-proliferation experts are questioning the wisdom of taking such a hard line as the Senators’ letter.
“There are mixed views in the arms control community,” said Peter Crail, a non-proliferation analyst at the Arms Control Association (ACA). “But there seems to be growing sentiment that if we’re looking at a negotiated solution, ‘zero enrichment’ is not going to be an option.”
“This attempt by congress to bind the adminsitration would kill negotiations,” he added.
Signed by Senators Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Robert Casey (D-PA), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), with John McCain (R-AZ) reportedly later adding his name, the letter also called on Obama to “continue ratcheting up” U.S. and international pressure on Iran.
Iran should be squeezed until it freezes enrichment and passes International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections (including submitting to the Additional Protocols, an extended set of safeguards measures), the letter said.
The Senators wrote that their positions are “reflective of a consensus among a broad, bipartisan majority in Congress.” Despite Peter Baker of the New York Times‘s suggestion that the Senators’ letter was a show of “bipartisan support,” it appeared to instead be a threat of push-back from Congress should Obama pursue a deal that allows any Iranian enrichment.
“[T]he letter makes the point that there will be very strong opposition to any kind of proposal that allows the Iranians to keep some sort of enrichment capability,” an anonymous Senate aide, explaining the “thinking behind the letter,” wrote to the Washington Post‘s new neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin. “This is an extremely dangerous idea that it is important to knock down.”
But experts think the tack — pressure for strict pre-conditions to talks — could be repeating the same mistakes of recent U.S.-Iran relations, where Iran was further isolated as its nuclear programs continued.
“This again shows that part of the problem in negotiations has been a lack of political space domestically for both sides,” said Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council and a Woodrow Wilson center fellow. “Obama realizes that in order to get a deal, there needs to be mutual compromises on both sides.”
“What you have now is that some members of Congress are adopting the (President George W.) Bush position, that, ‘No, we’re not going to compromise on anything, It has to be maximalist approach,” Parsi said. “That has caused problems in the past becaue it makes it impossible to have a real negotiation.”
The Senators pressed Obama just as the first two-day round of talks between the P5+1 group, which includes the U.S., were getting underway. Little had been accomplished as the negotiations drew to a close Tuesday, but another round is expected in January.
Going into the latest round, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted in an interview in Bahrain that the U.S. might be willing to accept Iranian enrichment.
“They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations,” Clinton reportedly told the BBC.
“During the Obama period, there has been some ambiguity about whether (zero enrichment) is the American red line,” said NIAC’s Parsi, pointing to Clinton’s comments. “The position that these law makers are taking (in the letter) is identical with the Israeli and Bush red lines, and seems to be at odds with the Obama red line.”
Rumors are already flying that the second round of the latest talks, to be held in Turkey, could see the U.S. offer a deal whereby a fuel swap agreement — involving sending nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing — would allow Iran to maintain domestic enrichment.
While Iran says it has a right to domestic enrichment as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Crail of the ACA notes that the treaty only guarantees “a peaceful nuclear program.”
“In the end, there is an implicit understanding that, yes, countries can enrich,” he said, adding, however, that he prefers that the technology not spread and all nuclear fuel production be internationalized.
But Crail emphasized that Iran, too, must be willing to make some concessions: “According to the NPT, in order for Iran to get all its rights under the NPT, Iran needs to cooperate with international inspections.”
The full text of the letter:
December 6, 2010
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
As diplomats from the United States join talks today between the P5+1 and Iran in Geneva, we write to share some thoughts about these discussions, and our broader Iran policy. In particular, we wish to express our support for a set of principles that we believe are reflective of a consensus among a broad, bipartisan majority in Congress, who stand ready to work with you and your Administration to stop Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability — a grave threat that would compromise our security and the security of all our allies in the Middle East.
First, we strongly support the cascade of measures that have been put in place over the past several months by your Administration, in cooperation with our partners around the world, to increase the pressure on the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. We applaud and are encouraged by the strong actions taken thus far by the Administration to secure meaningful economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Iranian regime, which are absolutely essential for any prospect of a peaceful resolution to this challenge.
Second, we believe that it is absolutely essential that the United States and its partners make clear to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran that we intend to continue ratcheting up this pressure, through comprehensive enforcement of existing sanctions as well as imposition o new measure, until the full, verifiable, and sustained suspension by Iran of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities and heavy water-related activities, as demanded by multiple UN Security Council resolutions. The pressure track should likewise continue on its current trajectory until Iran resumes full cooperation with the IAEA and the Additional Protocol; resolves all outstanding concerns about its nuclear program and complies with the steps required by the IAEA Board of Governors and multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions directed at its nuclear program. The government of Iran must undersand that there is absolutely no possibility of any freeze or reduction in the momentum of the pressure track until these minium requirements have been met.
Third, we remain concerned about the possibility that the Iranian regime will seek to buy time or otherwise dilute the focus of our diplomacy through unrelated “confidence-building measures” that fail to address the core concerns associated with Iran’s illicit nuclear activities. Such tactical maneuverings are of course no substitute for a real negotiation, and therefore should not be mistaken as such.
Fourth, we believe that it is critical that the United States and our partners make clear that, given the government of Iran’s patterns of deception and noncooperation, its government cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future. We would strongly oppose any proposal for diplomat endgame in which Iran is permitted to continue these activities in any form.
We thank you for your continued leadership on this matter of critical importance to our national security. We pledge to you our continued support to do all that is necessary to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.
Joseph I. Lieberman
UNITED STATES SENATOR
UNITED STATES SENATOR
Kirsten E. Gillibrand
UNITED STATES SENATOR
Robert P. Casey, Jr.
UNITED STATES SENATOR
UNITED STATES SENATOR