By Barbara Slavin, VOA
appears poised to give the Barack Obama administration some early Christmas
gifts as it finishes its work for the year.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate on Tuesday reached
a budget compromise that, if passed by both bodies, would avert the threat of
another government shutdown in early 2014. Meanwhile, a must-pass Pentagon
spending bill put together in another Capitol Hill backroom omits new sanctions
against Iran, which could torpedo the Nov.
24 nuclear agreement reached in Geneva.
Judging from comments in Congress this week, however, the Obama administration
faces serious domestic hurdles to concluding a comprehensive agreement trading
significant restraints on Iran's nuclear program for lifting nuclear-related
sanctions. The gap between what Iran and Congress might accept is wide.
Before leaving for the Middle East again to apply his seemingly endless energy
to another intractable issue - Palestinian-Israeli peace - Secretary of State
John Kerry gave a spirited defense of the Geneva deal to the House Foreign
Relations Committee. The House voted last summer 400-20 to apply new sanctions
against Iran, but no bill has been passed by the Senate.
Kerry argued that now is not the time for new sanctions against Iran, even with
a delayed trigger.
"We're asking you to give our negotiators and our experts the time and the space
to do their jobs, and that includes asking you, while we negotiate, that you
hold off imposing new sanctions," he said. "Now, I'm not saying 'never.' I just
told you a few minutes ago, if this doesn't work, we're coming back and asking
you for more. I'm just saying not right now."
Under the terms of the Geneva accord, which has a six-month duration but can be
renewed, the United States, the other permanent members of the U.N. Security
Council and Germany (P5+1) offered limited sanctions relief to Iran and promised
not to pass any new nuclear-related sanctions while negotiations proceed on a
comprehensive agreement. In return, Iran agreed to a series of temporary
constraints, including suspending 20 percent enrichment of uranium, which is
dangerously close to weapons grade. Iranian officials have warned that new U.S.
sanctions - even with delayed implementation - would kill the November accord.
Kerry explained that it was not just an American decision to withhold new
penalties against Iran and that unilateral Congressional action would undercut
unprecedented multinational support for a deal. If "Congress goes its own way,"
other members of the P5+1 might "get squirrely on the whole idea of sanctions"
and not follow suit, he said. New sanctions could also "give the Iranians a
public excuse to flout the agreement."
"This is a very delicate diplomatic moment, and we have a chance to address
peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world
faces today," Kerry added. "We're at one of those hinge points in history. One
path could lead to an enduring resolution in international community's concerns
about Iran's nuclear program. The other path could lead to continued hostility
and potentially to conflict."
Both Democrats and Republicans on the House committee expressed skepticism about
the agreement, which allows Iran to continue to enrich uranium to low levels -
but not increase its stockpile of uranium gas - for the duration of the accord.
There were also clear signs that the administration will have trouble selling a
comprehensive deal that includes even a limited enrichment program - which is
Iran's bottom line.
Committee chairman Ed Royce, a Republican, said that in his view Iran "simply
can't be trusted with enrichment technology because verification efforts can
never be foolproof with respect to their ability to get undetectable nuclear
The Obama administration has not yet defined its end game for the Iranian
nuclear program but some hints emerged from Kerry's testimony.
While Kerry said that uranium enrichment was not "locked in" to a final accord,
he said in response to a question from Rep. Michael McCaul, that Iran might have
a thousand or 500 centrifuges spinning as part of a comprehensive deal but under
"severe restraints - a mutually-defined program with mutually-agreed parameters,
consistent with practical needs." Such needs would include medical research and
fueling "a legitimate power program, which may be done in consortium with other
people with intrusive knowledge of what's going on." Kerry said.
"So the answer is, at the end of this I can't tell you they might not have some
enrichment, but I can tell you to a certainty it will not be possible for them
to be able to turn that into a weapons program without our knowing it so far in
advance that all the options that are available to us today to stop it," he
Iran currently has about 19,000 centrifuges installed, of which about 9,000 are
operating. For it to be willing to scale back to only a thousand centrifuges
would be a major concession from its point of view.
For now, skeptical congressmen lack a legislative vehicle to torpedo the Geneva
Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services
Committee, and Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat, on Tuesday released the text
of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014
which they hammered out with the senior members of the Senate Armed Services
Committee while Congress was on Thanksgiving recess.
Included are provisions to deal with sexual harassment in the military,
detainees at Guantanamo and missile defense. But the only mention of Iran is a
provision to expand an annual assessment of Iran's military to include examining
Iran-backed "terrorist and criminal groups." The bill also requires a report on
U.S. military partnerships with Iran's Arab rivals in the Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC) and authorizes integrated air and missile defense with GCC
Other avenues to passing sanctions are also closing. Senate Banking Committee
chairman Tim Johnson said Tuesday his committee would not act on a sanctions
bill this year. That leaves it up to Senate majority leader Harry Reid to decide
whether to bypass committee action and allow a vote on the floor on a sanctions
bill sponsored by Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Democrat Robert
Menendez, and Republican Mark Kirk. With the White House lobbying so hard
against it and Congress due to recess for the year on Friday, passage appears
doubtful this week.
Still, the threat of more sanctions in the future will play a role as
negotiations continue. Iranian officials were undoubtedly watching the hearing,
Kerry told the House committee. "And [when it comes to more sanctions] they know
you're yearning to go do it."
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America. (see more of Barbara Slavin's columns)
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