Authored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), the draft letter outlines the “absolute minimum steps” Iran must take in Moscow: shutting down its Fordow enrichment facility, ending enrichment of uranium to high levels, and shipping out its stockpile of high-enriched uranium. The letter says that Iran’s agreement to these steps would “justify continued discussions,” but doesn’t outline any other possible concessions.
While that leaves the door open for other possible lesser concessions, the Senators rule out acceding to a key Iranian goal until Iran agrees to the full spectrum of Western and U.N. demands. The New York Times reported that, in Baghdad, Iran asked for “an easing of the onerous economic sanctions imposed by the West,” something the Iranians have “relentlessly” pursued. But the Senators refuse to consider such steps without a comprehensive deal. In the draft letter, they write:
Barring full, verifiable Iranian compliance with all Security Council resolutions and full cooperation with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], including a new, far more intrusive inspections regime under the additional protocol, we see no circumstances under which Iran should be relieved from the current sanctions or those scheduled to come into effect at the end of this month.
That restriction could, in effect, stymie moves toward a “confidence-building” deal. A deal identical to the one mentioned by the Senators — demanding the “absolute minimum steps” but offering little sanctions relief — was on the table in Baghdad. After it failed to advance, an Iranian diplomat told the Christian Science Monitor that Iran would not “accept these things this way.”
The sanctions in question, due to take effect next month, forbid any third-party entity from doing business with Iran’s Central Bank. A European Union embargo on Iranian oil is set to kick in at around the same time.
The Senate letter comes just as preliminary talks indicate potential wiggle room to get a deal. The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl noted one such conversation in his column today. He added that, while there’s been no promised sanctions relief for tangible Iranian steps, the West has indicated that Iranian “steps will be met by reciprocal steps.”
The Center for American Progress’s Brian Katulis, Rudy DeLeon and Peter Juul noted in a brief last month that sanctions relief will be a top Iranian priority in the next round of talks:
Iran’s interests will be more to come to an agreement that averts the implementation of sanctions than in stalling talks. Tehran’s clock to avoid sanctions is now moving faster than its nuclear program is progressing.
In an op-ed for the Jewish Chronicle, the Ploughshares Fund’s Joel Rubin said that some in Congress “seek to undermine American efforts at political dialogue with Iran by reducing the administration’s negotiating flexibility.” He went on:
The way forward in the near term should therefore be one of negotiating modest, step-by-step, and fully verifiable concessions and agreements. The United States and the other powers at the negotiating table need to be prepared to give some ground in order to make progress toward the outcome we want.
A potential Iranian nuclear weapon is widely considered a threat to both the security of the U.S. and its allies in the region, as well as the nuclear non-proliferation regime. U.S., U.N. and Israeli intelligence estimates give the West time to pursue a dual-track approach of pressure and diplomacy to resolve the crisis. Questions about the efficacy and potential consequences of a strike have led U.S. officials to declare that diplomacy is the “best and most permanent way” to resolve the crisis.