Nuclear Hardliners Could Derail Push for Iran Deal

Oct. 15, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — As Ir­an starts its re­newed push to peace­fully de­fuse in­ter­na­tion­al ten­sions sur­round­ing its nuc­le­ar pro­gram, hard­liners in both Tehran and Wash­ing­ton are threat­en­ing to pounce on fail­ures in the ne­go­ti­ations to wring ma­jor con­ces­sions from their for­eign coun­ter­parts, is­sue ex­perts said.

Ir­an’s polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment could rein in its new, re­l­at­ively mod­er­ate lead­ers if ne­go­ti­ations launched on Tues­day with six oth­er na­tions prom­ise no fast re­lief from glob­al sanc­tions. Hawk­ish U.S. law­makers, though, are press­ing for new eco­nom­ic steps to pun­ish Tehran.

The closely watched two-day meet­ing in Geneva brings Ir­an to­geth­er with the United States and five oth­er coun­tries seek­ing to clear up fears that the Middle East­ern na­tion is pur­su­ing a nuc­le­ar-arms cap­ab­il­ity un­der the guise of a peace­ful nuc­le­ar pro­gram. At­tendees in­clude Ir­a­ni­an For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­hammad Javad Za­rif, U.S. Un­der Sec­ret­ary of State Wendy Sher­man, and Cath­er­ine Ashton, the European Uni­on’s top dip­lo­mat and chief in­ter­locutor for the six powers ne­go­ti­at­ing with Tehran.

At a Monday pan­el dis­cus­sion in Wash­ing­ton, a former Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said Tehran’s con­ser­vat­ives “will use any fail­ure in dip­lomacy to bludgeon” Za­rif and Ir­a­ni­an Pres­id­ent Has­san Rouh­ani.

Mean­while, “hawks” in Wash­ing­ton ap­pear ready to “go all in on sanc­tions with the ap­proach of re­gime change,” said Colin Kahl, who was as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of De­fense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011.

A vet­er­an U.N. ne­go­ti­at­or, speak­ing with Kahl at the Na­tion­al Ir­a­ni­an Amer­ic­an Coun­cil’s Third An­nu­al Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence, voiced doubt that Wash­ing­ton’s “ma­jor cen­ters of power have reached a con­clu­sion that a deal must be struck” with the gov­ern­ment in Tehran.

Pro­ponents of fur­ther sanc­tions in Con­gress are “go­ing to com­plic­ate the ne­go­ti­ation pro­cess sig­ni­fic­antly,” said Gi­an­do­men­ico Picco, a former as­sist­ant U.N. sec­ret­ary gen­er­al for polit­ic­al af­fairs.

He ad­ded: “Those in the lead­er­ship of Ir­an who are sus­pi­cious of Amer­ic­an in­ten­tions are go­ing to be­come even more sus­pi­cious.”

The po­ten­tial for Ir­an to en­rich urani­um in­to nuc­le­ar-bomb fuel makes its grow­ing ca­pa­city to re­fine the ma­ter­i­al a key con­cern for the five per­man­ent U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil mem­ber na­tions and Ger­many.

Tehran in­sists the ef­fort would strictly gen­er­ate ma­ter­i­al for en­ergy pro­duc­tion and oth­er non­mil­it­ary atom­ic activ­it­ies.

Steps by U.S. law­makers in the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives to fur­ther tight­en Ir­an’s eco­nom­ic isol­a­tion, by broad­en­ing sanc­tions against the coun­try, could leave Rouh­ani with little room to ne­go­ti­ate a com­prom­ise, ac­cord­ing to par­ti­cipants on the pan­el at the Wash­ing­ton con­fer­ence.

Ir­a­ni­an ne­go­ti­at­ors are seek­ing curbs on sanc­tions stead­ily piled on the coun­try by the United Na­tions, the European Uni­on, the United States and oth­er na­tions.

However, U.S. Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Robert Men­en­dez (D-N.J.) and nine col­leagues offered no po­ten­tial re­lief from ex­ist­ing pen­al­ties in a Fri­day let­ter to Pres­id­ent Obama.

In­stead, they offered only to sus­pend “the im­ple­ment­a­tion of the next round of sanc­tions cur­rently un­der con­sid­er­a­tion by the Con­gress.” The House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives in Ju­ly passed a bill de­signed to cut off nearly all of Ir­an’s re­main­ing in­ter­na­tion­al oil sales. The Sen­ate, though, has not yet con­sidered the le­gis­la­tion.

Men­en­dez and the oth­er sen­at­ors wrote that in re­turn for a “sus­pen­sion” in im­ple­ment­ing po­ten­tial new sanc­tions that Con­gress is weigh­ing, they want Tehran to fully sus­pend urani­um en­rich­ment, among oth­er steps.

“The in­tent of sanc­tions is to force Ir­an to halt and dis­mantle its nuc­le­ar weapons pro­gram,” their let­ter to Obama states. “Once this goal has been ac­com­plished in a real, trans­par­ent, and veri­fi­able way we will be pre­pared to re­move ex­ist­ing sanc­tions in a meas­ured, se­quenced man­ner.”

Rouh­ani has de­clared any per­man­ent urani­um-en­rich­ment halt to be off the table. Ir­a­ni­an ne­go­ti­at­ors re­portedly want a “road map” from this week’s meet­ing to es­tab­lish Tehran’s right to a do­mest­ic urani­um en­rich­ment pro­gram as a longer-term ob­ject­ive of dis­cus­sions.

At the Wash­ing­ton con­fer­ence, the one-time Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial voiced doubt that Tehran would agree to fully cease its urani­um en­rich­ment.

“A deal that zer­oed out Ir­a­ni­an en­rich­ment … would be bet­ter from a non­pro­lif­er­a­tion per­spect­ive [but] I just don’t think that this Ir­a­ni­an re­gime can agree to such an ar­range­ment,” Kahl said.

The former Pentagon of­fi­cial ad­voc­ated a “good-if-im­per­fect deal” that would re­duce Ir­an’s en­rich­ment ca­pa­city and urani­um stock­pile, bol­ster in­ter­na­tion­al audits of its nuc­le­ar sites and bar the na­tion from en­rich­ing urani­um bey­ond a low pur­ity suited only for use in power plants. He ad­ded it would be cru­cial to ad­dress Ir­an’s pre­par­a­tion of a heavy-wa­ter re­act­or that could give the na­tion a route to a plutoni­um-based bomb.

“In the ini­tial stages of a deal, you wouldn’t re­quire con­gres­sion­al ac­tion,” Kahl said, not­ing that Obama could act alone in lift­ing ex­ec­ut­ive-branch pen­al­ties.

“The real chal­lenge is if a series of con­fid­ence-build­ing in­ter­im steps is ac­tu­ally suc­cess­fully im­ple­men­ted, then the ad­min­is­tra­tion would have to make the case to Con­gress for more en­dur­ing sanc­tions re­lief, and that will be a very tough sell,” he said.

Ir­an is on track by the middle of next year to be­come cap­able of gen­er­at­ing enough highly en­riched urani­um for a single bomb fast enough to evade de­tec­tion by in­ter­na­tion­al mon­it­ors, ac­cord­ing to a Ju­ly ana­lys­is by the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity in Wash­ing­ton.

“At that so-called ‘break­out point,’ I think de­cisions re­lated to when dip­lomacy comes to an end may have to be reached,” Kahl said.

Fri­day’s let­ter was signed by Men­en­dez as well as sen­at­ors Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Robert Ca­sey (D-Pa.), Chris­toph­er Coons (D-Del.) Lind­sey Gra­ham (R-S.C.), John Mc­Cain (R-Ar­iz.), Bar­bara Mikul­ski (D-Md.), Patty Mur­ray (D-Wash.) and Charles Schu­mer (D-N.Y.).

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