Before meeting this week in Geneva with Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said he hoped to accelerate the drawn-out negotiations over a comprehensive nuclear deal.
While Zarif did not specify the reason for expediting talks, pressures have been mounting in both countries from skeptics and outright opponents of an agreement. If the spoilers succeed in preventing a deal, the result could be an escalatory spiral of retaliatory measures.
In the U.S. Congress, sponsors are lining up behind legislation limiting the foreign policy prerogatives of the executive branch. One bill, a revised version of legislation introduced in the last Congress by Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., but never voted on, threatens to restore restrictions on Iran’s battered energy sector if no comprehensive agreement is reached by July 6.
According to a summary of the bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, obtained by Al-Jazeera, it would add penalties over five months beginning in August by closing “loopholes in existing petroleum sanctions” to block Iranian exports of “condensates, fuel oil and certain other petroleum products.”
The summary, prepared by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — a strong proponent of new sanctions, which White House officials have warned could wreck prospects for a deal — says that in the event an agreement is reached, President Barack Obama would be obliged to send the text for 30 days of review by appropriate congressional committees.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is working on other legislation to boost the options for a Congress skeptical of nuclear compromise with Iran to set tougher terms for a deal. And the House of Representatives is preparing its own new sanctions legislation.
A veto vowed
While Obama has vowed to veto any further sanctions approved by Congress while negotiations continue — and he has the power to waive existing sanctions on national security grounds — Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and hard-line members of Iran’s parliament are likely to interpret any new sanctions legislation as a sign that the White House may not be able to implement an accord. The Iranian parliament could retaliate by passing its own bills mandating that an agreement retain all elements of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, for example, or that Iran be able to manufacture a certain amount of nuclear fuel by 2021, when the current contract with Russia to supply fuel for Iran’s only nuclear power plant expires.
Iranian legislators could even up the ante by mandating that Iran resume enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, as suggested by an Iranian journalist on Thursday. Enrichment above 5 percent reduces the time required for conversion to weapons-grade materiel, which is why Iran’s previous efforts in this regard caused such anxiety among its international interlocutors in the P5+1, which comprises the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
Obama administration officials have urged Congress to refrain from acting now, arguing that sanctions-in-waiting are harmful and unnecessary.
Washington’s ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, speaking Monday in Louisville, Kentucky, where she was a guest of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said that passing new sanctions would “dramatically undermine our efforts” to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran, she said, “would be able to blame the United States for sabotaging negotiations and causing the collapse of the process.”
New sanctions would also shred the multinational consensus that has “made our sanctions exponentially more effective than bilateral sanctions alone,” she said. “If we pull the trigger on new nuclear-related sanctions now, we will go from isolating Iran to potentially isolating ourselves.”
But Congress is unlikely to buy Power’s arguments without concrete evidence of progress in the talks. Iran and its interlocutors have set March as a soft deadline for a political framework agreement and the end of June for finalizing technical issues.
They hope that meeting a March deadline would contain the negative currents in Iranian society and provide a more difficult target for opponents in Washington. the American Israel Public Affairs Committee holds its annual convention in Washington March 1 through 3 and typically sends its delegates to Capitol Hill to lobby for passage of anti-Iran legislation.
Quiet on status of talks
Iranian and U.S. officials have been quiet about the status of the talks, which move from bilateral conversations this week to a P5+1 plenary with the Iranians next week.
According to Robert Einhorn, a former member of the U.S. negotiating team and key adviser to the Obama administration, Iran is still refusing to significantly reduce the enrichment capacity it is prepared to accept and is demanding rapid removal of U.N. and other sanctions instead of acquiescing to a schedule that ties sanction easing to Iran’s implementation of an accord.
There are also gaps on the duration of an agreement, although Iran appears to have moved from its demand that a deal restrict its activities for only three to five years and is now talking about eight years —- closer to the U.S. position of 10 to 15 years.
Einhorn suggested that political infighting in Iran accounted for the failure last year to reach a deal, which required extending a 2013 interim agreement for six months. “The domestic obstacles are more formidable on the Iranian side,” he wrote for The National Interest this week.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani certainly faces pushback from his right flank, including members of an economic mafia that has benefited from sanctions. In a recent speech, Rouhani blamed Iran’s poor economic performance on these groups and on Iran's isolation from international markets. He hinted that he would hold a referendum on a nuclear deal to demonstrate the popularity of such an agreement.
On both sides, the challenge will be to pre-empt opponents determined to prevent the sort of compromises that would be essential to achieve an agreement. Given the urgency, it should become apparent in the coming weeks whether such compromises are still possible.