Scuppered Iran Deal Faces Scrutiny in Congress

by Jasmin Ramsey

via IPS News

The anticipated agreement over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme that seemed to slip away in the last stage of talks in Geneva last week is now being hotly debated on Capitol Hill.

“Right now Congress is looking at the deal that wasn’t and trying to figure out if it could be good enough to support,” Joel Rubin, who heads policy and government affairs at the Ploughshares Fund, told IPS.

“Congress doesn’t sit on its hands and in this case they want to get involved on sanctions and whether or not to go forward with them, and this puts pressure on the [Barack] Obama administration,” he said.

Testifying Wednesday before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry — whose unexpected participation in the talks fueled speculation that a deal was in the works — said he hoped Congress would temporarily hold off on passing more sanctions because they could impede progress.

“We now are negotiating and the risk is that if Congress were to unilaterally move to raise sanctions, it could break faith with those negotiations and actually stop them and break them apart,” he said.

Some key members of Congress are expressing a different view.

“Tougher sanctions will serve as an incentive for Iran to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program,” wrote Committee member Sen. Robert Menendez in a USA Today op-ed Wednesday.

“When Iran complies, sanctions can be unwound and economic relief will follow,” said the Democratic senator, who cosponsored a bipartisan letter to the president in August that pushed for more sanctions and a credible reinforcement of the “military force” option until Iran “slowed down” its nuclear activities.

While stating earlier this week that they would await Kerry’s testimony before deciding on legislation that further reduces Iran’s oil exports, several key players said they were still undecided after the hearing Wednesday.

Other senators have meanwhile said they hope to add amendments involving Iran sanctions to the National Defence Authorisation Bill.

But Rubin, a former congressional aide and diplomat, told IPS “nothing will be passed into law between now and next Geneva round.”

“I think we were very close to a deal and I think we got pushback and everyone is talking to their capitals now about what can now be achieved and that’s a good thing,” he added.

“To expect a breakthrough after 30-plus years of almost no direct contact and a breakthrough within 30 hours is too high of a bar.”

Diplomatic finger-pointing

Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were initially unified in Geneva in resisting claims that France was responsible for the lack of a signed accord over Iran’s nuclear programme on Nov. 9.

But after Kerry said the next day in Abu Dhabi that Iran had not agreed to the final draft on the table, Zarif publicly responded through Twitter.

“Mr. Secretary, was it Iran that gutted over half of US draft Thursday night? and publicly commented against it Friday morning?” he tweeted.

Stating that he is interested in an agreement that is “serious and credible”, French Foreign Minister Fabius Laurent had argued that the “initial text made progress but not enough” during an interview with France Inter radio on the morning of Nov. 9 in Geneva.

Laurent was then the first to announce that no deal had been reached before the official EU/Iran press conference during the evening of Nov. 9 after a marathon round of meetings between Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1.

Speaking on the dangers of Iran’s nuclear programme on the Senate floor Wednesday, the hawkish Senator John McCain repeated his gratitude to the French for their role in opposing a deal in Geneva.

“We owe our French allies a great deal of credit for preventing the major powers in the negotiations, the so-called P5-plus one, from making a bad, bad, bad interim deal with Iran, a deal that could have allowed Iran to continue making progress on key aspects of its nuclear programme, and in return it would receive an easing of billions of dollars in sanctions,” he said.

Debating how to deal with Iran

Earlier Wednesday, Senator Lindsey Graham, who shares the position of pressure-advocates Menendez, McCain and other Senate hawks on Iran, forcefully argued against Iranian uranium enrichment, something which Iran has long insisted is an inherent right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a signatory.

“If the Iranians insist upon enriching, I think that is a non-starter, that is incredibly dangerous and you’ll wake up one day with a North Korea in the Mideast,” said Graham on the Senate floor.

But while conceding that the United States certainly prefers zero enrichment on Iranian soil, one expert argued that maximalist positions will stand in the way of a mutually agreed upon settlement.

“[I]n reality, the quest for an optimal deal that requires a permanent end to Iranian enrichment at any level would likely doom diplomacy, making the far worse outcomes of unconstrained nuclearisation or a military showdown over Tehran’s nuclear program much more likely,” Colin Kahl, the top Middle East policy official at the Defence Department for most of Obama’s first term, said in prepared remarks Wednesday at a House Foreign Affairs hearing.

Questioning the effectiveness of increasing pressure on Iran at this time, Kahl recommended significant constraints on Iran’s nuclear programme in exchange for “meaningful sanctions relief.”

While noting that Congress should be ready to increase pressure on Iran if no agreement is reached before the end of the year, Kahl also testified that it would be “counterproductive” to impose new sanctions on Iran at this time.

“[D]oing so risks convincing the supreme leader that Rouhani’s experiment with moderation is a fool’s errand, empowering Iranian hardliners and aggravating tensions within the P5+1 and the wider international coalition currently isolating Tehran,” he said.

Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. Senator Menendez is the same wise man who has been predicting for years that sanctions will bring down the Castro regime in Cuba…. That seems to be working well. So much for his understanding of the dynamics of sanctions.

  2. Ironically if Congress pass sanction it can lead to collapse of sanction regime and negotiations at the same time which makes Iran a double winner

  3. One would have to be Blind Freddy not to see that Obama is between a rock and a hard place with Iran. Israel’s insisting on Iran dismantling its nuclear facilities entirely knowing full well that it’s simply not going to happen.

    If Iran accepts Obama’s offer of partially easing sanctions in exchange for some concessions on enrichment and oversight, then he puts Israel’s back up. On the other hand, if Obama increases sanctions as Netanyahu wants then Iran will just keep on doing whatever it’s doing and insisting their program is purely for peaceful purposes. Since there will then be only minimal IAEA oversight, all it takes for David Albright to jump up and down for the umpteenth time shouting “Iran’s just (yet another) month away from having a bomb!” and, Voila, instant casus belli for Israel to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran on the basis that Iran has crossed a ‘Red Line’ – a line that Netanyahu plainly and loudly warned should not be crossed.

    Obama, who has promised that, no matter what, ‘he has Israel’s back’, will have no choice but to back Netanyahu. Once war starts then that’s it; it will not be a few hits on Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will be a war for regime change. It will become an all or nothing opportunity for Israel to go all out against Hezbollah and Hamas while the US blitzkriegs Iran into capitulation. No invasion. Just bombs. Not nuclear. Just very big bombs on very big value military and government targets.

    Obama doesn’t want this to happen.

    Netanyahu does.

    And, if push comes to shove, Netanyahu knows that Obama ‘has his back’.

    Frightening times ahead and it’s just a matter of time before it flares up in an instant and people will say ‘Gee, where did that come from?’

  4. The French Foreign minister’s first name is “Laurent” not his last name as you mentioned above.

  5. One essential requirement must be included in any pact with Iran, whether interim or long-term: the unfettered, unlimited and unbreakable right of U.N. inspectors to examine any nuclear-connected facility in Iran at any time and on a moment’s notice. Unless such an assurance is publicly included in clear and precise language, any pact will have neither the respect of the world nor the assurance of enforceability essential to making it a meaningful international agreement.

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