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
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
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."