On Wednesday, the Obama administration held its first classified briefing with Congress on its high-stakes nuclear talks with Iran. Despite deep skepticism of White House engagement with Iran -- and despite a fresh lobbying effort by AIPAC -- exiting lawmakers appeared mollified by the State Department's chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman, who led this month's talks with Iran in Geneva.
The talks between Iran and six world powers this month offer the Obama administration the chance to solve a key foreign policy goal: Preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon without the use of military force. But many in Congress fear Iran's newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani could be using the talks as a stalling tactic to reach breakout nuclear capacity. Despite those concerns, lawmakers expressed a willingness to give the administration's diplomatic efforts a chance.
"All I know is that sanctions seem to be working and that's a positive," Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, told The Cable. "If they weren't working, Iran would not be reaching out at this point."
"I appreciate the administration coming up and briefing us on what's going on with the talks," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), who rarely misses a chance to attack the administration's Middle East policies. "I fully support efforts at applying pressure and making sure there is a viable military threat so that perhaps a diplomatic resolution can occur ... I remain concerned about the threat of Iran's actions in terms of pursuing its goal of nuclear capability and will remain involved in oversight of that issue."
The meeting was well-attended with members of various House committees, including Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Appropriations and Financial Services, participating. Several powerful lawmakers whisked out of the classified briefing without speaking to the press, including House Intel chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI), State and Foreign Ops Appropriations Subcommittee chairwoman Kay Granger (R-TX), House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and House Foreign Affairs chairman Ed Royce (R-CA).
The consultations with Congress have coincided with an effort by AIPAC lobbyists to fire them up on the issue. Last week, the pro-Israel group sent a memo to lawmakers insisting that Iran does not have the right to enrich uranium. "The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) does not speak about the right of enrichment," reads the memo, obtained by The Cable from a Congressional aide. "Even if there were such a right, Iran's extensive decades-long violations of the NPT would have negated it."
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. 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. An AIPAC official would not say how many lawmakers received the memo, but noted that it was also sent to media outlets.
In any event, hawks in Congress appear to be pulling their punches, for the most part. (The sole exceptions appear to be Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who want to add sanctions on Iran immediately.)
Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a prominent critic of Iran's nuclear program, said he was "satisfied with the briefing."
"I thought it was laid out well," he said, noting that he remains adamant that the U.S. not relent on pressuring Iran until it dismantles its nuclear program. "We all have the same goal. We don't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. There are various ways you can get there. They laid out some of their thoughts and ideas on it, which I can't share with you, but I certainly do think it's worthwhile talking to the Iranians and seeing if this is real."
The next round of Iran talks begin in Geneva on Nov. 7.
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