The battle between Congress and the White House over a
potential nuclear deal with Iran is heating up again.
With just one week before the July 20 deadline for Iran and six
world powers to come to an agreement in Vienna on curbing Tehran's nuclear
enrichment capabilities, a key pair of senators is issuing a new set of terms
for a final deal that could further complicate the delicate talks.
In a letter obtained by Foreign
Policy, Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Foreign
Relations Committee, and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed
Services Committee, demand that any deal allow international inspectors to
probe Iranian facilities for "at least 20 years." It also says the
inspections "must be intrusive," with the International Atomic Energy Agency
gaining "access to any and all facilities, persons or documentation" necessary to
determine Iran's compliance with the deal.
In the letter, the senators write that Iran's long
"history of deception compels the international community to be vigilant
to ensure no path to a nuclear bomb is possible" and warn that they'll
keep the existing economic sanctions against Iran in place unless Tehran agrees
to 20 years of inspections.
Iran reportedly opposes any
deal that creates an inspection regime that lasts longer than 10 to 15 years
and has said any deal has to include the elimination of the sanctions,
raising concerns that the demands by the senators may be unattainable.
"The talks could be thrown off course if senators try to grab the
steering wheel away from U.S. and allied negotiators," said Daryl Kimball,
executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonproliferation
The letter, which is addressed to the president, went out to
members of the Senate Banking Committee, Foreign Relations Committee, and Armed
Services Committee on Friday, July 11. It has the support of the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, an AIPAC official
confirmed. The due date for senators to add their signature is Wednesday, which
could time the release of the letter for the final days of intense negotiations
between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security
Council plus Germany).
The status of those negotiations is fluid, but the most
significant hurdle pertains to whether Iran should be allowed to keep large
industrial-scale uranium enrichment capacity. The United States wants to limit
Tehran to 10,000 centrifuges or fewer for the enrichment of uranium. Tehran
says that it needs many times that capacity so that it can provide nuclear fuel
for its Bushehr power station without importing any from other countries.
Israel and many Western countries believe that Iran wants to use that uranium
to build a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies.
On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry stayed in Vienna for
an additional day to try to close the gaps in bilateral discussions with
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The two men are believed to be
deliberating the possibility of a two-phased agreement in which Iran faces tough
initial restrictions on uranium enrichment for the next few years, but would be allowed to expand enrichment activities
later on. That expansion would be contingent on Iran's demonstrated energy
needs and compliance with nuclear inspectors.
A senior Obama administration official declined to say whether
the White House is open to an inspection regime that is shorter than 20 years.
"We are not going to discuss our negotiating positions in public," the official
told Foreign Policy in a statement
Over the weekend, a senior U.S.
official told reporters in
Vienna said any final agreement would need to ensure that Iran's future
enrichment activities would be "very limited" for a number of years
that can be measured in "double digits."
"For some period of time, they are going to have a
very limited, very constrained program that will have inspections,
verification, monitoring, and a lot of limitations of what they can do,"
the official said.
The administration has been
clashing with Capitol Hill for several months about the contours of a potential deal
with Iran, but it's clear that the two sides will need to
be on the same page eventually. While the administration is free to negotiate a
deal of its choosing and can issue temporary waivers exempting Iran from
certain sanctions, only Congress has the authority to lift the measures once and
for all -- a point the senior administration official acknowledged. "Ultimately, comprehensive sanctions relief would clearly
require a mix of executive and legislative action," said the official.
Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, said it's shortsighted to oppose a deal based on any one detail. "Any
agreement that is struck between the P5+1 and Iran should not be evaluated on
the basis of any single feature," he said. "Instead, it should be judged on its
overall impact on reducing Iran's nuclear capacity and improving capabilities
to detect any ongoing or future Iranian weapons program."
A spokesman for Menendez said the
lawmakers were playing a constructive role in advocating for a strong deal. "To
describe a letter being circulated for signatures outlining sensible parameters
to any potential agreement as being disruptive lacks merit," said Adam Sharon.
"The same voices who have long opposed congressional involvement are doing so
again, but they ignore that congressional action got us to this place and that
Congress is mandated to fulfill an oversight role, should a deal be reached, and
how that agreement is monitored and verified."
You can read the full letter bellow:
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