A letter to President Obama from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) published this week outlining their preferred path forward on Iran’s nuclear program omitted two key issues that hawks in Congress and allied groups have been pushing: a vote on Iran sanctions and a demand that Iran entirely dismantle its nuclear program as part of a final deal with the United States and its international partners.
The letter, released in conjunction with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual policy conference, stresses cooperation between the administration and Congress on the Iran issue, reiterating the administration’s view that Iran should not obtain a nuclear weapon and that further sanctions may be put in place if the final a deal with Iran falls through.
But it notably does not include a call for passing new sanctions on Iran while talks are ongoing — a now mostly Republican push that has failed for the moment.
After the sanctions push stalled, supporters moved the fight to the contours of the final agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, namely, that Iran not be allowed to enrich uranium on its soil and that its infrastructure to do so be destroyed.
Numerous Republicans in Congress have been promoting this so-called “zero enrichment” position, one that the Israeli government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also pushing. Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said as much on CNN on Tuesday. “We want to see the dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. That means no centrifuges and no ICMBs, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and no plutonium-producing heavy water reactors,” he said.
“Letting Iran enrich uranium would open up the floodgates,” Netanyahu said in his speech to AIPAC on Tuesday.
Obama administration officials and outside experts have continuously countered that this outcome is unrealistic, given, as Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball noted, “Iran’s existing enrichment capacity and the strong support for enrichment across the Iranian political spectrum.”
President Obama stressed this point in a recent discussion on Iran, noting that the option “in which Iran eliminated every single nut and bolt of their nuclear program” is “not available.” He explained that because anyone can obtain the technology for the nuclear cycle, “[w]e’re not going to be able to eliminate” Iran’s access to nuclear know-how. “But what we can do,” he said, “is eliminate the incentive for them to want to do this.”
This argument appears to now have some weight in Congress. The Cantor-Hoyer letter, and a similar letter to the president sent by 3 Senate Republicans and 3 Democrats, does not explicitly call for “zero enrichment” and only refers to eliminating Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. But while the Senate letter sets out conditions of a final agreement that could potentially constrain the U.S. negotiating position with Iran, Cantor and Hoyer’s letter is more realistic in its expectations and supportive of the Obama administration.
“We are hopeful a permanent diplomatic agreement will require dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear weapons-related infrastructure,” they write, “such that Iran will not be able to develop, build, or acquire a nuclear weapon.” The Cantor-Hoyer letter continues:
We do not seek to deny Iran a peaceful nuclear energy program, but we are gravely concerned that Iran’s industrial-scale uranium enrichment capability and heavy water reactor being built at Arak could be used for the development of nuclear weapons.
So Cantor and Hoyer ask that Iran’s “nuclear weapons-related infrastructure,” not its civilian infrastructure, be dismantled. While some hawks have also said that Iran could be allowed a peaceful nuclear program as part of a final deal, they add the caveat that Tehran should not be allowed to enrich the fuel for that program on its soil. The Cantor-Hoyer letter makes no such demand.
JTA reports that the House letter “has the backing of J Street, the liberal Jewish group that has opposed many of the Iran-related initiatives” backed by AIPAC. And, the National Iranian American Council said that it “has minor concerns with the House letter, but will not oppose it and commends the efforts of those in the House who succeeded in securing a more balanced letter.”
Editor’s note: Cantor and Hoyer have yet to send their letter to President Obama. They are currently shopping it around to their House colleagues for signatures. As such, this article has been updated for clarity.