WASHINGTON — A final deal with Iran could include a capacity for uranium enrichment, a White House spokesman said on Tuesday, seeking to clarify some of the terms of the interim deal signed between Tehran and world powers.
The United States does not recognize that Iran has a right to enrich, but "we are prepared to negotiate a strictly limited enrichment program in the end state," said Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman with the White House National Security Council.
This is because the Iranians have indicated for the first time that they are prepared to accept "rigorous monitoring and limits on level, scope, capacity and stockpiles," she said in response to a query arising from a story first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.
It has been reported for months that the Obama administration and Western powers were prepared to tolerate low level enrichment as part of a permanent deal; Meehan’s statements Tuesday were the first on-the-record confirmation.
Israel opposes any permanent enrichment capacity, saying that at even low levels, the infrastructure required for such enrichment leaves Iran perilously close to the ability to manufacture a weapon.
“If we can reach an understanding on all of these strict constraints, then we can have an arrangement that includes a very modest amount of enrichment that is tied to Iran’s actual needs and that eliminates any near-term breakout capability,” Meehan said. “If we can’t, then we’ll be right back to insisting on no enrichment.”
Meehan cast the statement in response to persistent claims that the interim six-month deal agreed to last month by the major powers and Iran implies recognition of an Iranian “right” to enrich.
“Since the P5+1 would have to agree to the contours of a possible enrichment program, it is by definition not a ‘right’,” she said, using the acronym for the six powers – the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain – dealing with Iran.
“It is also important to note that Iran has acknowledged that issues raised in the UN Security Council resolutions have to be addressed and brought to a satisfactory conclusion before we agree to enrichment in the end state,” Meehan said, an apparent allusion to complaints by Israel and congressional lawmakers that the interim agreement does not dismantle Iran’s nuclear program, as required by the resolutions.
White House opposes new sanctions effort in Senate
The White House also said on Tuesday it opposes a fresh effort by some members of the US Senate to impose new sanctions against Iran, even if the new restrictions would not take effect for months.
Some senators have been discussing the idea of imposing new sanctions on Iran that would kick in after six months or if Iran violated terms of an interim deal reached 10 days ago that attempts to contain its nuclear program.
"If we pass sanctions now, even with a deferred trigger which has been discussed, the Iranians, and likely our international partners, will see us as having negotiated in bad faith," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
A recent survey conducted by Hart Research for the advocacy group Americans United for Change found that the majority of Americans want Congress to refrain from imposing new economic sanctions on Iran over the next six months.
Sixty-seven percent said they would prefer giving the interim deal signed in Geneva between Tehran and world powers a chance, while 25% disagreed, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The poll also found 34% of respondents supported the interim deal, while 22% opposed and 41% had no opinion. After a sample group was read a description of the deal, 63% favored it and only 24% were opposed.
Administration officials have been pushing lawmakers not to move ahead with a sanctions package, saying doing so risked alienating Tehran and other countries engaged in the talks by making Washington seem to be acting in bad faith.
But many lawmakers are skeptical about the agreement reached in Geneva between negotiators for Iran and the P5+1 and insist Washington should increase the pressure on Tehran by adding to sanctions.
Wendy Sherman, the US under secretary of state for political affairs, who led the US negotiating team in Geneva, was scheduled to hold a classified briefing on Iran for the entire House of Representatives on Wednesday morning.
The White House says a six-month window without new sanctions would allow negotiators to work on a comprehensive agreement to resolve the decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear program, which has stirred fears of a new Middle East war.
But lawmakers believe it was tough sanctions pushed by Congress - not the White House - that brought Tehran to the table and see no reason not to spell out tough consequences if Iran does not comply with the interim deal.
"That way we're not negotiating in what-ifs," a Senate aide said.
Members of Congress, including many of President Obama's fellow Democrats, are generally more hawkish on Iran than the administration, and influential pro-Israel lobbyists have been pressing lawmakers to keep to a tough line.
Carney said there are concerns in the Obama administration that any new sanctions imposed by Congress would serve to undermine the core architecture of the sanctions program.
"Passing any new sanctions right now would undermine a peaceful resolution to this issue," he said.
Iran rejects allegations that it has sought covertly to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is enriching uranium solely for civilian purposes.
Congressional aides said it was too early to know whether an Iran sanctions package would be introduced as standalone legislation or as an amendment to a measure such as a defense authorization bill being considered by the Senate.
It also was not clear how far any legislation would go in the Senate, where Obama's fellow Democrats control a majority of votes.
JPost.com staff contributed to this report.