A bipartisan group of nearly 80 national security experts sent President Obama a letter on Thursday praising the White House’s diplomatic efforts to resolve the impasse regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The letter comes as U.S. officials are expressing cautious optimism about a possible agreement with Iran, and as lawmakers and groups in the U.S. are pushing for more sanctions on the Islamic Republic, a move Obama administration officials and experts warn could scuttle negotiations.
“We applaud your decision to use diplomacy vigorously in an effort to reach agreements with Iran, particularly given [Iranian] President Hassan Rouhani’s apparent openness to greater transparency and internationally-accepted and verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program,” says the letter to Obama — which was signed by Council on Foreign Relations President Leslie Gelb and former U.S. Ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Thomas Pickering, among others. “Decades of distrust and lack of contact between the two countries will complicate the task of reaching agreements that will provide us the assurance we require that Iran’s nuclear program will be used only for peaceful purposes.”
The United States, its international partners and the Iranians are in Geneva this week for a second round of talks, with officials from both sides expressing early optimism on Thursday that some kind of deal may be just over the horizon. While the U.S. is reportedly willing to offer some sanctions relief in exchange for a temporary halt of Iran’s uranium enrichment, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said this week that “it is possible to reach an agreement during this meeting” in Geneva this week.
In a New York Times op-ed this week, Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq during the height of the U.S.-led war there, said that “talks with Iran have succeeded in the past — and they can succeed again,” noting that “[b]oth Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani face domestic pressures — from skeptical members of Congress in Washington and anti-American hard-liners in Tehran.”
Indeed, a handful of U.S. senators are urging their colleagues to pass additional sanctions on Iran while the negotiations are ongoing. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said this week that he will introduce a measure that will not allow Obama to waive existing sanctions until or unless, the Daily Beast reported, “Iran agrees to large concessions on its nuclear and missile programs.”
But top Obama administration officials are asking Congress for room to maneuver. “We are…at a very serious moment in these negotiations,” Under Secretary for Political Affairs and lead U.S. negotiator with Iran Wendy Sherman said last week. “We’ve asked [Congress] for a pause [on sanctions] to give us just a few weeks to see if in fact we can get a first step agreement that would stop the advance of Iran’s nuclear program.”
Other experts agree. Adding more sanctions “would feed into the Iranian narrative that the administration or the U.S. is not really interested in a deal, but only interested in eroding the capability and legitimacy of the Islamic Republic,” said Suzanne Maloney — an Iran scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution — on a press call on Wednesday.
Not all senators are defying the administration on Iran. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) supports a pause in more sanctions and suggested this week that, as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he may make it more difficult for his colleagues to add such measures as amendments to the upcoming defense bill. “If someone offers an additional Iran sanctions amendment, that’s going to be a highly controversial amendment,” Levin told reporters, according to Politico. “I’ve opposed [additional sanctions]. I think we should explore the possibilities of working out something with Iran, as skeptical as we are. We ought to explore that without adding to the sanctions that exist, because it could really weaken the coalition that favors Iran sanctions, in other words, Russia, China — countries that have gone along with the sanctions we have — which are working.”
“You will undoubtedly face opposition to your decision to engage Iran,” the 79 security experts said in their letter to Obama on Thursday. “We support this new policy and pledge to help our fellow Americans appreciate the ambitious and transformative course you have chosen to build a more peaceful and more cooperative environment in the Middle East.”