By Maxime Fischer-Zernin.
GENEVA–The Obama administration kicked off negotiations with Iran in Geneva last week with “substantive and forward looking” talks that produced rare progress in narrowing the gap between Iran and the West, and establishing the basis for a negotiated outcome. Despite this progress, President Obama will have to protect the fragile state of negotiations from legislators sympathizing with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “zero enrichment” hardline stance.
BREAKTHROUGH IN GENEVA
Last week in Geneva the Iranian government kicked off diplomatic talks with the West, marking the the beginning of a relationship that began at the September meeting of the United Nations General Assembly—one based on mutual interests and mutual respect between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, President Obama, and their European counterparts. These P5+1 talks include the five United Nations Security Council members: US, UK, Russia, China, France, plus Germany.
When the General Assembly met in late September, I wrote that the US had to engage in serious, honest, and above all reasonable negotiations with Iran in response to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s early concessions, which included a slowing of uranium enrichment and the freeing of political prisoners. “After a summer of flirting between Rouhani and Obama, it’s time for both parties to commit to this new relationship,” I wrote, and it looks like after breaking the ice in New York the second date in Geneva was a success.
Conciliatory speeches by Rouhani and Obama had set into motion a thawing of tensions between the two countries that has since brought Iran and the Western 5+1 powers to the table in Geneva. Last week, while most news media converged on the budget crisis, the 5+1 powers and Iran entered unchartered territory in nuclear negotiations.
Officials say that these talks were remarkably specific and technical, including a presentation by the Iranian delegation in English—a rarity seen as a sign of good will—with a PowerPoint outlining a possible framework for a solution. The contents of the presentation remain secret, a good sign that the proposal is being considered seriously. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi, the P5+1 “has accepted the overall framework of Tehran’s new proposal to settle differences, but said we should wait for their practical measures.”
“The Iranian proposal is more structured and clear than previous Western proposals because the previous Western proposals only included the first steps.” said the National Iranian American Council’s Trita Parsi, “The Iranian proposal goes from the beginning to the end and has the end defined.”
In another positive development, the presentation was followed by a private meeting between the US and Iranian delegations that would have been unthinkable during the tenure of Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This unity was later echoed in an unprecedented joint-statement that the talks had been “substantive and forward-looking.”
SHAPING AN AGREEEMENT
One possible negotiated agreement that has been suggested includes a consolidation of Iranian nuclear facilities to only two locations, the facilitation of monitoring, and the suspension of weapons grade 20%-enriched uranium production. In exchange, the United States would unfreeze Tehran’s cash reserves in foreign escrow accounts in a series of installments agreed to the coalition linked to Iranian progress.
This proposal has found its biggest proponent in Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a traditionally hawkish public policy institute. “My biggest concern is that if the administration takes out a brick from the sanctions regime, you won’t be able to put it back together. [This plan is] a way to provide nonsanctions financial relief to give the administration flexibility during the negotiations.”
Such an installment system would allow Congress to regulate the hold of the assets. While the Obama Administration is clearly opposed to legislative interference in its diplomacy, this compromise may give Congress enough of a stake in a deal to avoid the passage of further sanctions.
Sanctions have been pushed aggressively by Israel, which has taken to an offensive strategy to undercut the negotiations. In an attempt to undermine the patience needed to conduct these talks and bring them to a constructive end, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been lobbying members of Congress to threaten new and harsher sanctions. “It would be a historic mistake to relax the pressure on Iran now, a moment before the sanctions achieve their goal,” said Netanyahu, although it is unclear what evidence Mr. Netanyahu has for his assertion.
Hawks have been hoping for swift passage in the Senate of a House bill passed 400-20 in July that would impose new sanctions of Iran. The bill would embargo oil exports by penalizing foreign companies or countries buying them, and freezing the Iranian cash reserves used by Tehran to do business with foreign companies. These forms of economic warfare against Iran, meant to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program, will fail and instead just undermine negotiations.
“The imposition of still more sanctions, and the rattling of more sabers through legislation that refers to military force, are the sorts of Congressional actions that would be a slap in the face of a new Iranian administration that has just placed a constructive proposal on the negotiating table, would feed already understandable suspicions that the United States is interested only in regime change and not in an agreement and thereby would weaken the Iranian incentive to make still more concessions,” explains Paul Pillar who headed Middle East and South Asia analysis for the CIA from 2005 to 2009.
Arizona Rep. Trent Franks has gone so far as to introduce a resolution, with the support of a dozen of his colleagues including Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), calling for an Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against Iran. In a joint statement with Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), Graham says that: “Now is a time to strengthen-not weaken-U.S. and international sanctions. The U.S. should not suspend new sanctions, nor consider releasing limited frozen assets, before Tehran suspends its nuclear enrichment activities.”
Obama has also found unexpected opposition in Congressional Democrats, who hold the power to impose, modify or remove sanctions. In 2011, Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who Chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, imposed sanctions on Iran despite opposition from the administration.
If a proposal of unfreezing assets linked to Iranian progress is in the works, it may provide Congress with enough power in the process to gain support of moderate lawmakers. While a spokeswoman for the White House, Bernadette Meehan, said Friday that it was “premature and speculative” to discuss types of sanction, White House spokesman Jay Carney added that “the Iranian proposal was a new proposal with a level of seriousness and substance that we had not seen before.”
With the next meeting scheduled for November 7 and 8, Iranian officials shared that the sides could reach a deal in several months. If the negotiating parties can continue to build on this year’s developments, the “third date” between the parties in November could be when, as they say, the magic happens.