While the Obama administration is painting the ongoing Iran nuclear talks in Vienna as a fluid process with flexibility on the table, Tehran is stressing that non-negotiables remain yet the U.S. is in the palm of its hand.
In an address last week to mark Mining and Industry Day, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the sanctions eased by President Obama are demolished for good and cannot be rebuilt even if a deal is not struck 13 days from now — confirming the warnings of the president’s harshest Democratic critics in the Senate.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested in a meeting with senior officials today that the U.S. is keeping Israel from striking at Iranian facilities.
“The reason of the US’ prevention is that [it] does not see the attack affordable and we also strongly emphasize that a military attack on the Islamic Republic is not affordable for anyone,” Khamenei said, according to Iran Press TV.
The ayatollah added that the “enemy’s hand is empty in both fields of sanctions and threats.”
He stressed that uranium enrichment remains a sticking point in negotiations with the P5+1, saying that Iran’s bottom line is an enrichment capacity of at least 190,000 Separative Work Units (SWUs) while the U.S. wants to limit the Islamic Republic to 10,000 SWUs.
Khamenei also said it would be “laughable” to consider shutting down the Fordow nuclear facility.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters last week that she wouldn’t go into specifics about “where the biggest gaps remain,” but stressed that the main issues are centrifuges, enrichment, the Arak heavy water reactor, and Fordow, an underground uranium enrichment facility near Qom.
A senior administration official said Thursday that the negotiations proceeding toward the July 20 deadline were “very intense” and centered around “a series of reasonable, verifiable, and we believe easily achievable measures that would ensure Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon and that its program is limited to exclusively peaceful purposes.”
Deputy Secretary William J. Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman, and National Security Adviser to the Vice President Jacob J. Sullivan led the delegation to Vienna at the beginning of the month.
“Iran’s negotiators have been quite serious throughout this process. There does remain a significant discrepancy, however, between Iran’s seeming intent with respect to its nuclear program and the actual content of that program to date,” the official said. “Iranian officials have stated repeatedly and unambiguously that they have no intention of building a nuclear weapon, which is not a hard proposition to prove. All we’re asking is for Iran to commit to concrete and verifiable steps to show to the world what they’ve repeatedly said is indeed true.”
The official said all options would be entertained as “there are a number of different combinations that can give the international community the assurances we need that Iran’s program is for entirely peaceful purposes, and we are working very hard to find a combination that makes the most sense and helps us reach the objectives.”
“Keep in mind that this is not a negotiation about two parties meeting each other halfway. This is not a mediation. This is about the international community’s need for Iran to meet its international nonproliferation obligations after years of violations documented by the IAEA and the United Nations Security Council. All we are asking is that Iran take steps to come in line with its responsibilities after years of not doing so. We are offering Iran a path forward, in fact a different path forward. But its leaders must engage if they’re going to avoid even more economic and diplomatic pressure, and most importantly, their leaders must continue to engage and find a solution to meet the objectives that Iran says it can easily achieve.”
The official noted that they’re putting forward “very reasonable proposals” while Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif talked about the “maximalist positions” on the table. “I’m not surprised he’s saying that. But indeed the facts are that we are putting down very reasonable positions. In fact, we have tried to find a variety of paths forward because, as I said, this is about a package, not any one element.”
In an English-language YouTube message posted last week, Zarif said “Iranians are allergic to pressure.”
“To those who continue to believe that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, I can only say that pressure has only been tried for the past eight years…. It didn’t bring the Iranian people to kneel in submission and it will not now, nor in the future,” he said.
“…My government remains committed to ending this unnecessary crisis by July 20. I hope my counterparts are, too.”
Though the administration official said they’re not eyeing an extension of the deadline, Congress is wary and prepared for that request.
“The July 20 deadline is for the talks to be finished by then. This is now the end of the six-month period,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said Sunday on Fox. “It seems to me at this point Iran has gotten everything that they’ve wanted. The sanctions have been released. They’ve gotten the freeze of the $7 billion in assets lifted. And they’ve given nothing so far.”
Barrasso said he thinks Zarif is “setting up to either blame the United States if it doesn’t work, or try to take credit if it does work.”
“There’s a letter signed by 83 senators that says how we define success, which is no ability to enrich at all and significant inspections. A level of being able to see what they’re really doing and getting around,” the senator added. “And I think it’s going to be very difficult for Iran to comply with that.”
That letter, sent to Obama in March, was spearheaded by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).
The sheer number of senators on board served as a warning call to the administration that they have the support to override a presidential veto on tougher Iran sanctions.
“We believe that Congress has a continuing role to play to improve the prospects for success in the talks with Iran,” the senators wrote. “As these negotiations proceed, we will outline our views about the essential goals of a final agreement with Iran, continue oversight of the interim agreement and the existing sanctions regime, and signal the consequences that will follow if Iran rejects an agreement that brings to an end its nuclear weapons ambitions.”
The House prepared its own letter last month — led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) — stressing that any long-term sanctions relief for Iran requires congressional action.
“Our two branches of government have long been partners in working to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” they wrote. “However, as these hugely consequential national security decisions are made, greater cooperation between Congress and the Executive Branch is essential, given that any permanent sanctions relief demands congressional approval.”
At the beginning of the month, Reuters reported on a UN confidential report that concluded that a shipment of rockets and other weapons, concealed on the Klos C and seized by Israel in March, originated from Iran and could have been headed to Sudan as a transit point for Gaza or points in Northern Africa.
“Iran was caught red-handed — this shipment is likely the tip of the iceberg,” Royce said at the time. “Imagine an Iranian regime unrestrained by any international sanctions.”