US Congress wary of Iran nuclear deal

Agreement to limit enrichment and ease sanctions has stirred up discontentment among members of both major parties.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said banking and oil sanctions on Iran will remain in place [Reuters]

Any celebration over the deal reached in Geneva last weekend between the world’s major powers and Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme was quickly overshadowed by confusion about the deal’s terms, distrust among the players, and criticism over whether the deal went far enough. 

The temporary agreement limits Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities, existing stockpiles of enriched uranium, and ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium in exchange for easing sanctions. It does not limit the country’s research and development of enrichment technology. US President Barack Obama has said the next six months will be spent attempting to reach a permanent agreement to dismantle Iran’s nuclear programme.

But many US legislators, who were largely excluded from the negotiation of the agreement, issued press releases, took to social media and spoke on TV news programmes to voice their displeasure.

“I have serious concerns that this agreement does not meet the standards necessary to protect the United States and our allies,” said Congressman Ed Royce, a Republican from California and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “Instead of rolling back Iran’s programme, Tehran would be able to keep the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability.”

Kerry delivers video on Iran deal to Congress

It’s not only Republican politicians who are voicing concerns. Members of President Obama’s Democratic Party have also expressed their scepticism. “While I am concerned that this interim agreement does not require Iran to completely halt its enrichment efforts or dismantle its centrifuges, I hope that over the next six months, Iran takes the necessary steps to finally end its quest for a nuclear weapons capability,” said Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Fellow New Yorker Chuck Schumer, a Democratic senator, said he was “disappointed by the terms of the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations because it does not seem proportional”. Schumer said the temporary cessation does not limit Iran’s capabilities enough.

US sanctions

In an effort to disarm some of the criticism, US Secretary of State John Kerry issued a video explaining the agreement’s details. Kerry said, “[The agreement] does not lift the current architecture of our sanctions. Our sanctions are basically banking and oil sanctions, and those sanctions will stay in place.”

Several of those sanctions were put in place in 2012 by executive order, which do not require an act of Congress to impose. Further sanctions were imposed by executive order in June 2013. Those sanctions can be eased without congressional action. However, Congress can vote to impose new sanctions, which President Obama can then veto.

In what signals a lack of faith in the deal and Iran’s ability to uphold it, some members of Congress began calling for new sanctions immediately following the announcement of the agreement. Others recommend preparing sanctions in anticipation of Iran failing to meet the terms of the temporary agreement . 

Daniel Serwer, a professor of conflict management and a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said such calls threaten to undermine the administration’s efforts and cast a pall over any permanent rapprochement. “There will be those in Congress who press for immediate new sanctions. It’s easy for them to do that because they can be fairly confident they won’t pass,” Serwer explained. “Immediate sanctions would disrupt the negotiation of the permanent agreement.”

A ‘pretty good deal’?

“The people who are coming out against the agreement, I don’t know that they believe their arguments. I don’t believe their heart is in it,” said Alan Kuperman of the Nuclear Proliferation Project. “It’s a pretty good deal. It’s got a couple things that are questionable, and down the road there may be consequences.”

Kuperman said if Iran is allowed to continue to research and develop its nuclear technology, “it would be very, very easy for Iran to have a clandestine facility that could produce many bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium. My concern all along hasn’t been this race to the bomb. Because who the hell needs one bomb? No one needs one bomb. What you need is an arsenal.”

He added that while the current situation is not perfect, any effort to ease Iran’s nuclear capabilities is a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the deal has alarmed many in Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly declaring the agreement to be a “historic mistake”. Over the summer, Netanyahu said Israel might have to attack Iran in order to prevent the latter from developing nuclear weapons.

“The fact that the United States was having these talks and didn’t inform Israel for months while these talks were going on is alarming to Israelis,” said Dov Waxman, co-director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development at Northeastern University.

“There have always been some differences of opinion between the US and Israel over Iran’s nuclear programme, but the Obama administration has always insisted that they will closely coordinate with Israel. So there is a concern from Netanyahu himself that they were kept in the dark about these talks, and what does that signal about the Obama administration’s willingness to really take into account Israeli concerns?”

A broader understanding

The secrecy surrounding the agreement was understandable, said Serwer. “I understand why the administration thought it had to make this arrangement as an elite pact, negotiated with relatively few people. This is one way of doing a quick and dirty agreement, but it’s no way to get a broader understanding about Iran’s nuclear programme.”

The difficulty is if the P5+1 try to negotiate some sort of final agreement with no or very limited dismantling of Iranian facilities. Then all bets are off.

by - Jeremy Pressman, director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut

That broader understanding should include a glance back. A decade ago, Iran agreed to similar terms for the cessation of its nuclear programme. It signed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) protocol, and issued a joint statement with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany. Among other caveats, the statement claimed, “While Iran has a right within the nuclear nonproliferation regime to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, it has decided voluntarily to suspend all uranium enrichment and processing activities as defined by the IAEA … The three governments believe that this will open the way to a dialogue on a basis for longer-term cooperation, which will provide all parties with satisfactory assurances relating to Iran’s nuclear power generation programme.”

Yet the 2003 agreement did not bring about longer-term cooperation. Whether or not the latest deal will succeed in that regard remains to be seen. While congressional approval is not necessary for the temporary agreement, an engaged and supportive Congress will be pivotal for any permanent arrangement, especially as additional sanctions are created or lifted.

“This is an interim deal,” emphasised Jeremy Pressman, the director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut. “I don’t think it was a surprise that there was no dismantling of the Iranian [nuclear] programme in this agreement. The difficulty is if the P5+1 [a group comprising the US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany] try to negotiate some sort of final agreement with no or very limited dismantling of Iranian facilities.

“Then all bets are off and all the rhetoric that you’re hearing from sceptical members of Congress now, I don’t think it would just be rhetoric.”

Follow Molly on Twitter: @MollyEMcCluskey 

Source: Al Jazeera