The ticking clocks of Iran's nuclear program

Key senators, administration officials and Jewish leaders talk to The Jerusalem Post about new sanctions bill.

Iran President Hassan Rouhani at the Campidoglio palace in Rome, Italy, January 25, 2016  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran President Hassan Rouhani at the Campidoglio palace in Rome, Italy, January 25, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – On October 29, with just a day’s notice, members of the National Security Council summoned four of America’s most influential pro-Israel lobbyists to the White House for an urgent meeting.
Administration officials had been informed that the Senate Banking Committee was preparing to mark up a long-threatened, unforgiving bill that would further restrict Iran’s oil sector as early as this week – right before US diplomats meet with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva, where they hope to forge an interim agreement over Iran’s controversial and expansive nuclear program.
The bill is the fifth piece of sanctions legislation against Iran written by the US Congress in four years. Among the five, this is the harshest yet.
“Democrats were making clear to the White House that this train is moving,” one Senate aide said. “The administration didn’t want anything scheduled, and they didn’t want anything announced, at least until they get through the next round.”
Fearing the train may have left the station, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, her deputies Ben Rhodes and Tony Blinken and Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman came to the meeting with a request: Hold off on pressuring Congress to move forward through the next two rounds of negotiations.
“The timing was everything,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
The meeting was on such short notice that Harris had to send a deputy in his place.
“At this point, I am willing to give the administration the benefit of their judgment,” said Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who says the administration hopes for kernels of a deal to emerge by the end of November.
“I think at the end of that month they will know if it’s real or not,” Foxman said, at which point, “this debate may be moot.”
And yet the lobbying has continued, both because and in spite of the delicacy of the moment: All parties see a short window to act. All share the same goal of ridding Iran of its enrichment program, in its eighth year in earnest and well on its way to providing the Islamic Republic with several nuclear warheads. But the White House and Congress – operating in sync with Israel’s government and its American advocates – have conflicting strategies on how best to proceed towards that goal.
Regardless, Foxman is correct: This week in Geneva, Iran’s actions will determine which path America takes, several officials and legislators explained in interviews with The Jerusalem Post.
“In some ways, it’s not a bad thing having this out there. But it has to be dropped at an appropriate time,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said, speaking by phone from Salt Lake City. “It just depends when you use the stick.”
The stick
Those in support of the measure argue that sanctions are a proven coercive force; that existing penalties have brought Iran to the negotiating table, but that more are required for Iran to actually close a deal.
They seek a complete freeze of all enrichment across Iran. On Capitol Hill, they represent the greatest bipartisan coalition on any issue today, foreign or domestic.
The bill would immediately sever Iran’s access to its remaining foreign-exchange reserves, estimated at roughly $100 billion with $20b. in unrestricted funds. It would clamp down on Iran’s shipping industry.
But harshest of all, Congress would impose a mandatory cap on the number of barrels of crude oil per day that Iran could export – less than 50 percent of its BPD count, met within 12 months from passage – or else its buyers would face significant financial penalties.
The US president has the authority to grant sanctions waivers to companies based in allied nations buying Iranian oil. Those exemptions would no longer be renewed, forcing President Barack Obama to inform Beijing, Seoul and Istanbul that their oil would have to come from elsewhere, quickly, or else risk economic ties with the United States.
For this reason, the Obama administration is pushing back. Sanctions have worked, the White House charges, only because the president has used political capital to shore up an international coalition willing to enforce them. Only the executive branch can implement them, and indeed, the president has done so effectively: Iran’s exports of crude have already halved, and the value of Iran’s currency has plummeted over 60% since 2010.
The White House fears this bill will fracture its global coalition against Iran – and that a conservative political alignment to the right of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will punish him, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, for attempting a futile reconciliation effort with the US.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the talks, one senior administration official used sharp language to describe the possible consequences of further legislative action.
“Moving forward now will severely undermine prospects for a diplomatic solution,” the official said. “It will create cracks in the international coalition we have built to enforce the sanctions. It will provide an excuse for those in Iran who want to resist any deal.”
The official called the bill “unnecessary,” because the president has the prerogative to sign executive orders implementing most of the bill’s provisions.
“They have reason to believe Rouhani and [Foreign Minister Mohammed] Zarif are both empowered to make a deal, and highly incentivized to make a deal,” said Colin Kahl, a former senior Pentagon official now a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. “The great achievement of the Obama administration is that they changed the narrative from the [former president George W.] Bush years – now, the reason diplomacy has failed so far isn’t America’s fault, but Iran’s.”
Two days after the White House meeting, Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew made their plea to Congress in a classified meeting on Capitol Hill. Enthusiasm over the prospects of a deal was underwhelming, multiple senators said.
“Senior administration officials made the same claims and asked us to withdraw the amendment” before the last several rounds of sanctions, Sen. Mark Kirk (Illinois), a leading Republican on the issue, commented over email. “They were wrong, and today the Menendez-Kirk amendment is credited with bringing Iran back to the negotiating table.”
The time to act is now, Kirk said, not after giving Iran several more chances to forge a hallow interim agreement.
Sen. Robert Menendez (New Jersey) is unconvinced. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he is the highestranking Democrat in Congress on issues of foreign policy. And yet it is he – not his Republican colleagues – who is leading an effort to push this bill through committee by the end of the year.
In a phone interview, Menendez said he had not heard “sufficient, substantive reasons to delay” the bill beyond Friday’s talks in Geneva.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to know what is your bottom line – at least we have to know, even if that knowledge is in a secured fashion,” Menendez said. “What’s our position on a final set of negotiation? What’s our end game?” Menendez said that, barring any dramatic developments in Geneva this week, he will move forward with the bill in committee in short order.
“I would really want to see something significant by the end of [this] week,” he said.
The science
In a letter to Obama, Menendez, Kirk, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) and a bipartisan group of their peers told the president that they would only halt progress on the bill if Iran agreed to a complete freeze of uranium enrichment.
“I would really be surprised if they had a meaningful interim agreement by the end of the week,” Albright said, sympathizing with the difficult job ahead for her successor.
“We are at a moment where it is possible to have some kind of an agreement, but it will take a while, because it’s a complicated diplomatic story.”
Patrick Clawson, a sanctions expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the US should be teasing Iran with the prospect of sanctions relief should they deliver on a deal.
“If the P5+1 negotiators were to get the Iranians to freeze all uranium enrichment, they should all get lavish raises, because that would be a remarkable achievement,” Clawson said. “But it’s silly for the White House to say this bill undercuts Rouhani. It reinforces Rouhani, because he can go to Khamenei and say that the West has always said things will get worse until there’s an agreement.”
Complicating negotiations is the mere science of nuclear enrichment: At this point, advances in Iran’s program make an interim deal much harder to forge than it would have been even six months ago. Iran has developed and installed IR2M centrifuges that enrich uranium at three to five times the efficiency of their older models, allowing them to spin low-enriched stockpiles into weapons-grade material at a quicker pace than UN inspectors can detect the shift.
That means uranium enriched at just 3.5% could be speedily converted, making a higher percentage cutoff no longer acceptable to Western negotiators.
“I’d be willing to listen to the totality of any package,” Menendez said, when asked whether he would entertain an interim deal in which Iran agreed to enrich uranium at no higher than 3.5%.
The House of Representatives already passed its own version of the bill over the summer. The effort was led by Democrats, passing by a vote of 400 to 20.
“There’s always a pull and tug between the executive branch and the legislative branch when it comes to foreign policy,” Congressman Eliot Engel (D-New York) said, praising the negotiations process. “You could say, ‘hold off and let the president’s people do all this.’ Or you could go into a classic good cop, bad cop routine.”
Engel, who pioneered the House bill, said that the US has waited until the “11th hour” to seriously address the Iranian crisis.
But asked whether he would support a resolution giving the president authorization for the use of force, Engel said, “we shouldn’t jump the gun.”
“If Iran stops enriching, we should stop adding additional sanctions,” the congressman said. “If Iran starts dismantling its program, we can start dismantling sanctions.”
Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, called the “freeze-for-freeze” proposal a nonstarter, and said he does not expect a breakthrough within Congress’s set time frame.
“This is not good cop, bad cop. This is good cop, insane cop,” Parsi said in a phone interview. “Khamenei has given Rouhani a lot of rope. And if he fails, he has a lot of rope to hang himself on.”The clocks
Since his September speech to the United Nations in New York, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Israel supports the negotiations process and seeks a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute.
But in what represents yet another public disagreement with Obama in a series of many, Netanyahu, through intermediaries, is encouraging US lawmakers to pass the bill, because he is convinced that further pressure is the only way to force Iran to capitulate.
“I don’t want to comment on any specific legislation in the Senate, but I can say this,” Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said in an interview in Washington. “Netanyahu emphasized the formula of the equation: The greater the pressure, the greater the chances... for diplomacy to succeed.”
Administration officials recognize the role Israel’s government has played in the lobbying effort.
“The point of contention is not the diplomatic process per se. It’s whether, at this moment in time, that process would be strengthened or weakened by additional congressional action,” Harris said. “Those that support congressional action are not saying, let’s scuttle the diplomatic process.
What they are saying is, the diplomatic process is far more likely to achieve results if we strengthen our posture.”
Asked whether he thought Iran would ever fully cease nuclear enrichment, as Netanyahu demands, Harris conceded it is unlikely.
“It may never happen,” he said, “but if I’m selling my house, I don’t open with my price.”
Michael Zolandz, a sanctions lawyer representing firms in Europe and Asia trying to abide by the current regime, said he worries that more penalties will compound pressure on his clients.
“The concrete impact of new legislation is both political and strategic – even if the bill has a phase-in period, it will immediately change the calculus in negotiations,” Zolandz said. “New legislation could have a dynamic impact on the US’s ability to negotiate with the Iranians, as well as our allies.”
Zolandz expects the current sanctions regime will continue to damage Iran’s economy, so long as Obama maintains strict enforcement and closes loopholes in the laws with executive orders.
But “there is a limit to how effective the status quo can be,” Zolandz said. “The question of whether you can continue to effectuate change through the status quo is really difficult to answer, because good data on the Iranian economy is hard to come by.”
Multiple clocks are ticking: One in Congress, one in the White House, one in Jerusalem and two in Tehran. Calculated or not, the Iranians have allowed their program to advance so far ahead of any developed negotiations process that they will struggle to cut a deal without appearing to capitulate to Western demands. That’s a real political problem for the Rouhani government, if it truly wants a deal.
The second clock is entirely their own: Should they choose nuclear breakout, Iran reserves the ability to do so at any time, so long as their program’s infrastructure remains in place.
The White House insists that US intelligence agencies are capable of detecting breakout in Iran, which they determine would occur not in publicly acknowledged facilities but in covert plants, likely slowing down the process.
Contacted for this article, White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the administration does not seek an openended delay of the legislation.
“There may come a point where additional sanctions are necessary,” Meehan said.
“The window for negotiation is limited, and if progress isn’t made, there may be a time when more sanctions are, in fact, necessary.”
The final clock running its course is in Geneva. This week, the consequences of Iran’s decisions are real and immediate.
Whether or not Zarif comes to the table with an actual, meaningful proposal will determine how Israel prepares going forward; how Congress legislates its punishments; and the wearing patience of a president, desperate for a deal that he knows may never come to pass.
“They’re trying to use the time that Rouhani has, because there’s no question that Rouhani also has a difficult internal situation,” Albright said. “And this is what diplomacy’s about – figuring out what you can do with the person at the other side of the table.”