Following a round of high-stakes talks on Iran's nuclear program in Geneva, the Obama administration is seeking to reassure lawmakers it won't give away the house in its negotiations with Tehran. On Friday, its chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman won over a key Iran hawk, Rep. Eliot Engel, during a round of calls to the Hill.
"Under Secretary Sherman told me that the Iranians appeared serious in the recent nuclear talks in Geneva, but cautioned that the devil's in the details, and made clear that U.S. negotiators will remain clear-eyed as they seek to negotiate a deal to end Iran's nuclear weapons program," Engel, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable.
A congressional aide said Sherman's assurances dispelled concerns that the White House would scale back its sanctions regime against Iran any time soon. "She was very quick to assuage any concerns that the administration was going to start unilaterally waving sanctions," said the aide. "She made very clear that the sanctions won't be moved until we see verifiable progress. The fears expressed earlier that the administration was going to give away the store don't seem to be well-founded."
The administration is also coming to the Hill with a second message: Hold off on all sanctions. A State Department official tells The Cable the administration wants to stave off new sanctions in the Senate designed to choke off almost all of Iran's remaining international oil sales. But it's unclear how receptive Congress will be.
As the delicate talks with Iran resume on Nov. 7, the administration has sought to engage Iran without infuriating the sizeable bloc of Iran hawks in Congress threatening to slap a new round of sanctions on the country. The support of Engel, who's never shy about criticizing the administration on its more dovish decisions in Syria and Egypt, comes at an important juncture.
On Friday afternoon, following a report in The New York Times that the White House is considering releasing Iran's frozen overseas assets in a future deal, Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) loudly protested any such decision.
"Now is a time to strengthen-not weaken-U.S. and international sanctions," they said. "The U.S. should not suspend new sanctions, nor consider releasing limited frozen assets, before Tehran suspends its nuclear enrichment activities."
But the next flash point in Washington promises to be the Senate Banking Committee, which is eager to take up a new package of sanctions passed by the House in July.
Although Sherman has already begun making phone calls with lawmakers, she's yet to hold classified meetings with them, which promise to go into greater depth about concerns lawmakers have.
The Rouhani government insists on the right to continue enriching uranium on its own soil, something the White House has hinted it might accept under stringent inspections, but hasn't officially accepted. Members of Congress are likely to strongly oppose any such arrangement.
Tehran has also yet to signal a clear willingness to shutter its underground, heavily-fortified nuclear plant at Qom, a source of particular concern for Israel because it is largely impervious to their air strikes, or to dismantle any of its centrifuges.
World powers are likely to demand Iran ship out some of its near-weapons-grade uranium stockpile. Before this week's talks, Iranian diplomat Abbas Araghchi declared such a move a "red line." On Wednesday, he softened that stance: "Red lines should not be an obstacle," he told a small group of journalists. "They are not reversible, but can be dealt with."
It's unclear how the administration plans to strike a deal with the Iranians while pleasing hawks in Congress -- a seemingly impossible task. But while the readout on Sherman's call with Engel was light on details, it appears that she dispelled any notion that the administration is close to giving Iran any relief on sanctions in the near-term.