Shortly after a meeting with Iranian officials earlier this week, Obama administration officials indicated that they were weighing a partial easing of sanctions if Tehran takes convincing steps toward addressing international concerns about its controversial nuclear program. While the negotiations elicited optimism from participants, the question of reducing sanctions – which Iran wants as a part of any final deal – may prove a stumbling block in a skeptical U.S. Congress.
While White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Iran had showed “a level of seriousness and substance" during negotiations that had not been seen before, specific steps – short of agreeing to meet again – were not made clear.
But anonymous administration sources on Friday told news outlets, including the Associated Press, that one of the proposals the Obama administration was considering included a plan to allow Iran to recoup some of the oil revenue it cannot currently access due to U.S. sanctions. Estimates suggest the amount could be between $50 and $75 billion.
In its official response, the administration was careful to say that nothing had been decided. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Friday that “discussions of specific types of relief at this point [are] premature and speculative,” and that “nothing was agreed to in Geneva regarding sanctions relief.”
Psaki’s statement reinforced remarks made earlier by White House spokesperson Bernadette Meehan, who said "Iran will have to agree to meaningful, transparent and verifiable actions before we can seriously consider taking steps to ease sanctions."
Given the complexity of U.S. sanctions on Iran, which stretch across different government agencies and pertain to varied industries – including banking, energy and shipping – unwinding them would be time-consuming and difficult. That may be why the possible sanctions-relief plan could offer an easier on-and-off switch that’s tied to an executive order.
The effect of U.S. sanctions, which have ramped up considerably under President Barack Obama, have depleted Iran’s oil exports, devalued its currency and led to an overall economic contraction in the last two years.
But while that makes relaxing them difficult, the more onerous stumbling block is that a sizable faction in Congress remains very skeptical or outright hostile to an administration plan that discusses anything other than increasing, not easing, sanctions.
In the current congressional session, there are several additional sanctions bills against Iran under consideration, including the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013. While the House version of this bill passed 400 to 20 in July, a Senate version has not yet been voted on. If passed, the legislation would attempt to end all Iranian oil sales by 2015 and cripple its mining and construction sectors.
The Obama administration lobbied the Senate to hold off on voting on that bill until this week’s Geneva talks, and it will continue to do so in the intervening time period ahead of the next round of Iran talks scheduled for the first week of November. Those talks, like the most recent ones in Geneva, will be held with the five major world powers that comprise the “P5+1” group – the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
But in the lead-up to the Geneva talks this week, 10 senators published a bipartisan letter calling for a harder line on sanctions.
In the letter, the senators said they were “willing to match Iran’s good-faith actions by suspending the implementation of the next round of sanctions,” but they said nothing of existing sanctions. The letter also said that Iran “does not have a right to enrichment” as part of a peaceful nuclear program.
Also during this week’s talks in Geneva, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced a new resolution to tie any rollback of sanctions on Iran to the full abandonment of its nuclear program.
“I hope the entire Senate will unite behind this effort to make clear to Iran that the sanctions that have brought them to the negotiating table will only be strengthened should Iran remain unwilling to completely end its nuclear program,” Rubio said in a release. He specified that this included any “enrichment and reprocessing” activities.
Such enrichment and reprocessing activities for the purposes of a civil nuclear energy program are permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – to which Iran is a signatory. However, the senators oppose it. The Obama administration, on the other hand, has not ruled out limited Iranian nuclear enrichment on Iranian soil, though at lower levels and with more verification than the status quo.
What’s more, Iran rejected the option of not being allowed to enrich uranium on its soil this week, saying that endgame could be part of a broader negotiation.
Not only is Iranian enrichment, and possible moves by the administration to consider that and easing sanctions, at odds with more hawkish members of Congress, it also bucks the line of the strongest U.S. ally in the Middle East.
Israel, unlike the U.S. and other members of the P5+1, rejects enshrining any right of Iranian enrichment, especially anything that gets it closer to “breakout capacity,” after which achieving a bomb becomes much easier.
On Oct. 1, during the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Iranian President Hasan Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” warning the P5+1 against appeasing what he claims are dubious Iranian intentions.