On Sunday, Iran and six world powers finally announced an agreement on how to implement their nuclear deal struck back in November. The question now becomes: will the U.S. Congress wind up torpedoing the deal by piling on new economic sanctions against Tehran?
First announced by Iranian officials on Sunday morning, the agreement starts the clock on a six-month period to reach a final deal on Iran's nuclear program beginning Jan. 20. In this interim period, the U.S. will begin easing financial sanctions against Iran while the Islamic Republic grants the United Nations' atomic agency access to its nuclear infrastructure so that it can verify compliance.
Meanwhile, hawks in Congress continued to add cosponsors to sanctions legislation -- legislation that President Obama has threaten to veto. A senior U.S. official warned reporters Sunday that new Congressional measures against Tehran would undercut international efforts to contain Iran's nuclear program -- and risk upending the painstakingly constructed sanctions regime that helped force Iran into nuclear talks in the first place. "Our intelligence community has assessed that new sanctions enacted during negotiations are likely to derail" the talks, the official noted.
There was much uncertainty about the specifics of the agreement; senior administration officials refused to make the implementation agreement public. But President Obama and other senior U.S. officials outlined some of the key provisions.
The technical agreement for the first time set out a specific road map for implementing an early pact that requires Iran to curtail some of its nuclear activities. The deal requires Tehran to halt advances at a facility built for the production of plutonium; and the pact calls for Iran to convert its stores of highly enriched uranium into a more diluted form of uranium or oxide. It will also require Iran to disconnect some of its massive arrays or "cascades" of centrifuges used to enrich higher grade uranium.
Under the terms of the pact, Iran's stores of highly enriched uranium will be rendered "unusable for further enrichment," Secretary of State John Kerry said after the deal was reached. The pact places the International Atomic Energy Agency at the center of the international effort to verify Iran's compliance. IAEA inspectors, who already monitor key aspects of Iran's nuclear program, will undertake more frequent and more intrusive inspections.
Still, the agreement includes some key concessions for Tehran, including a pledge to free up more than $4.2 billion in seized Iranian assets held in Western banks. Other commitments may not be so easy for Washington to keep. American negotiators promised no new sanctions legislation against Tehran. The bill gaining supporters in the Senate would violate that agreement, says the White House. Supporters of the legislation maintain that it is not a "march to war" and would only impose new sanctions if negotiations for a final comprehensive deal collapse.
Senior U.N. officials told reporters today that the money would be released in monthly phases over the next six months. But they said the flow of funds would stop if Iran fails to meet its obligations. The pact will also allow Tehran to preserve its right to enrich uranium, continue to enrich low-grade uranium, five percent or lower, and to continue its research and development on its nuclear program.
On January 20, the International Atomic Energy Agency will issue a report detailing the current status of Iran's nuclear program, and outlining steps that Tehran is committed to taking to meet its obligations. But nuclear proliferation experts said that Sunday's agreement provided few new substantive elements to the deal struck on Nov. 24. "I don't think there is anything particularly new in this implementation agreement; I don't think it broke new ground," said David Albright, the founder of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). "These are the easy issues."
Albright added that the talks will likely become increasingly difficult as the U.S. and Iran butt heads over a series of more substantive issues, including American goals to further curtail Iran's nuclear activities. For instance, he said, the United States is keen on seeking further cuts in Iran's uranium stockpiles, scaling back the number of sophistication of its centrifuges, halting Iran's ability to advance its plutonium program. Albright also questioned Kerry contention that the diluted uranium would be rendered unusable.
News of the deal comes as a long-building effort to impose new sanctions on Iran has reached a near-filibuster-proof majority in the Senate despite White House insistence that the legislation will implode the sensitive nuclear talks. The "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act," sponsored by New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, now has 59 cosponsors up from two dozen last month. Given the overwhelming support for new sanctions in the House of Representatives, the Senate is getting closer to the 67 votes it would need to override a presidential veto -- a threat President Obama reiterated on Sunday.
"Imposing additional sanctions now will only risk derailing our efforts to resolve this issue peacefully," Obama said in a statement, "and I will veto any legislation enacting new sanctions during the negotiation."
The decree precipitated a series of fiery statements by lawmakers on opposing sides of the issue.
"I am worried the administration's policies will either lead to Iranian nuclear weapons or Israeli air strikes," Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Il) said in a statement. "It's time for the United States Senate to pass common-sense bipartisan legislation ... to ensure this process leads to the peaceful dismantlement of Iran's nuclear program."
Others rebutted the sanctions push, emphasizing the historic diplomatic opportunity. "Today's announcement is a positive development," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) added in a statement of his own. "I strongly believe that we should give this diplomatic approach a chance to succeed and that a new round of sanctions would be counterproductive."
With clear majorities in the House and Senate pining for more sanctions, the White House is clearly losing the Iran debate in Congress. However, with the implementation agreement finalized, the White House is better off than it was before. Officials will now be able to point to concrete steps the Iranians are taking as a result of its painstaking diplomatic efforts. (The most important of those steps being the dilution of its highly enriched uranium and providing unprecedented access to IAEA inspectors -- something other administration have failed to secure.)
Though the argument is far from won, supporters of the administration's negotiating tack hailed the implementation agreement as a positive sign. "The decision to start implementation of the November nuclear accord shows that diplomacy is gaining further momentum," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. "Confrontation has been replaced with collaboration."