Senate Hawks Push Obama on ‘Zero Enrichment’ for Tehran

Five senators sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama Monday warning the administration not to offer concessions in upcoming talks with Iran over its nuclear program. If Obama takes the advice, experts say, it could sink his engagement efforts with Tehran.

The letter, first reported by Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin, calls for zero enrichment on Iranian soil as a U.S. pre- condition for any negotiated deal to end Iran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear program. 

"[G]iven the government of Iran’s patterns of deception and noncooperation, its government cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future," said the letter. "We would strongly oppose any proposal for diplomat endgame in which Iran is permitted to continue these activities in any form." 

But the Iranians have placed a high priority on domestic enrichment, and would likely oppose a deal precluding such activity. Iran denies accusations from the West that eventual weaponization is the goal of its nuclear program, which is widely considered a point of Iranian national pride. 

Even some U.S.-based non-proliferation experts are questioning the wisdom of taking such a hard line as the senators’ letter. 

"There are mixed views in the arms control community," said Peter Crail, a non-proliferation analyst at the Arms Control Association (ACA). "But there seems to be growing sentiment that if we’re looking at a negotiated solution, ‘zero enrichment’ is not going to be an option." 

"This attempt by congress to bind the administration would kill negotiations," he added. 

Signed by Senators Jon Kyl, Mark Kirk, Kirsten Gillibrand, Robert Casey and Joe Lieberman, with John McCain reportedly later adding his name, the letter also called on Obama to "continue ratcheting up" U.S. and international pressure on Iran. 

Iran should be squeezed until it freezes enrichment and passes International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, including submitting to the Additional Protocols, an extended set of safeguards measures, the letter said. 

The senators wrote that their positions are "reflective of a consensus among a broad, bipartisan majority in Congress". Despite Peter Baker of the New York Times’s suggestion that the Senators’ letter was a show of "bipartisan support", it appeared to instead be a threat of push-back from Congress should Obama pursue a deal that allows any Iranian enrichment. 

"[T]he letter makes the point that there will be very strong opposition to any kind of proposal that allows the Iranians to keep some sort of enrichment capability," an anonymous Senate aide, explaining the "thinking behind the letter", wrote to the Washington Post’s new neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin. "This is an extremely dangerous idea that it is important to knock down." 

But experts think the tack – pressure for strict pre- conditions to talks – could be repeating the same mistakes of recent U.S.-Iran relations, where Iran was further isolated as its nuclear programs continued. 

"This again shows that part of the problem in negotiations has been a lack of political space domestically for both sides," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and a Woodrow Wilson Center fellow. "Obama realizes that in order to get a deal, there needs to be mutual compromises on both sides." 

"What you have now is that some members of Congress are adopting the (President George W.) Bush position, that, ‘No, we’re not going to compromise on anything, It has to be maximalist approach," Parsi said. "That has caused problems in the past because it makes it impossible to have a real negotiation." 

The senators pressed Obama just as the first two-day round of talks between the P5+1 group, which includes the U.S., were getting underway. Little had been accomplished as the negotiations drew to a close Tuesday, but another round is expected in January. Going into the latest round, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted in an interview in Bahrain that the U.S. might be willing to accept Iranian enrichment. 

"They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations," Clinton reportedly told the BBC. 

"During the Obama period, there has been some ambiguity about whether (zero enrichment) is the American red line," said NIAC’s Parsi, pointing to Clinton’s comments. "The position that these lawmakers are taking (in the letter) is identical with the Israeli and Bush red lines, and seems to be at odds with the Obama red line." 

Rumors are already flying that the second round of the latest talks, to be held in Turkey, could see the U.S. offer a deal whereby a fuel swap agreement – involving sending nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing – would allow Iran to maintain domestic enrichment. 

While Iran says it has a right to domestic enrichment as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Crail of the ACA notes that the treaty only guarantees "a peaceful nuclear program" 

"In the end, there is an implicit understanding that, yes, countries can enrich," he said, adding, however, that he prefers that the technology not spread and all nuclear fuel production be internationalized. 

But Crail emphasized that Iran, too, must be willing to make some concessions: "According to the NPT, in order for Iran to get all its rights under the NPT, Iran needs to cooperate with international inspections."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.