President Barack Obama on Thursday told reporters that there was “no need” for new sanctions against Iran during negotiations over its nuclear program, digging in against Congressional plans to pass a new round of embargoes against Tehran.
“If we’re serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there’s no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective and that brought them to the table in the first place,” Obama said, taking questions after remarks on the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act. “Now, if it turns out they can’t deliver, they can’t come to the table in a serious way and get this issue resolved, the sanctions can be ramped back up, and we’ve got that, we’ve got that option.”
“So our policy is Iran cannot have nuclear weapons and I’m leaving all options on the table to make sure we meet that goal,” Obama said, reiterating a constant threat from the administration to use military force if necessary.
The president also pointed to his administration’s past support for international, rather than unilateral, sanctions as the cause of Iran being at the negotiating table in the first place. “[T]he reason we’ve got such vigorous sanctions is because I and my administration put into place when I came into office the international structure to have the most effective sanctions ever,” he said, referring to the 2010 sanctions passed through the United Nations Security Council. “And so I think it’s fair to say that I know a little bit about sanctions since we set ‘em up and made sure that we mobilized the entire international community so that there weren’t a lot of loopholes, and they really had bite.”
Obama insisted that it was “never realistic” that the nuclear crisis could be resolved all at once. Instead, he said, the recent focus has been on a short-term deal during which a final agreement could be negotiated. Under the latest proposal, Iran would halt advances on its nuclear program, allow greater inspections from the international community, and dilute some of the uranium it has previously enriched. In return, Obama said, Iran would receive what he called “very modest relief at the margins of the sanctions that we’ve set up.” The majority of sanctions on Tehran’s oil sanctions and its banking and financial sectors, which have had the most impact on Iran’s economy, would remain in place.
“What that gives us is the opportunity to test how serious are they,” Obama argued, “but it also gives us an assurance that if it turns out six months there be now that they’re not — if it turns out they’re not serious, we can crank, we can dial those sanctions back up.”
“My message to Congress has been that let’s see if this short-term, phase one deal can be completed to our satisfaction where we’re absolutely certain that while we’re talking with the Iranians, they’re not busy advancing their program, we can buy some additional months in terms of their breakout capacity,” Obama said. “Let’s test how willing they are to actually resolve this diplomatically and peacefully.”
Obama’s remarks come a day after members of his administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, went to the Hill to brief senators on the most recent rounds of talks between the P5+1 — made up of Russia, China, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and U.S. — and Iran in Geneva. Those talks ended inconclusively after an agreement framed around the proposals could not be reached, but a new round is due to begin on Nov. 20 at the political director-level.
Senate Republicans ripped into the administration after the closed door session concluded, lamenting to reporters the lack of details that the administration had provided. “It was an emotional appeal,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told reporters afterwards. “I have to tell you, I was very disappointed in the presentation.” Noted Iran hawk Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) even went as far as to call the presentation “fairly anti-Israeli.”
Members of the House have been pressuring the Senate to take up the legislation they passed earlier this year that would enact a new round of sanctions, using a hearing on Wednesday to get their point across. The White House, in contrast, recently said that enacting new sanctions could be construed as “a march to war,” in the words of White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD), the chair of the Senate Banking Committee, did not comment to reporters after the briefing whether his committee would move ahead with the legislation.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Association’s latest report on Iran shows that the country has “virtually halted” since President Hassan Rouhani took office in August. Only four first-generation centrifuges had been installed at the Natanz plant during the last three months, compared to 1,800 in the previous period. Not all of the centrifuges installed are operating, however, and the amount of uranium enriched to 20 percent remains below the 250 kg that would need to be further enriched to become weapons-ready.