Negotiators from the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the United States, plus Germany) and Iran are stepping up the pace of their talks on a long-term formula to verifiably limit Iran's nuclear capacity in exchange for phased sanctions relief.
Less than a week after the P5+1 and Iranian negotiating teams concluded several days of meetings in Geneva on Jan. 18, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and European Union Political Director Helga Schmid met again with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on January 23 and 24 in Zurich, Switzerland.
The P5+1 and Iranian political directors are scheduled to meet again in early February for their next round of multilateral negotiations.
According to a statement by the European Union's Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Nov. 24, 2014, their objective is to complete a political agreement by the end of March. This would allow another three months to work out the technical details for a long-term, comprehensive agreement by July 1.
In the meantime, each side continues to implement the commitments laid out in the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action, which was extended until at least July 1.
Informed assessments of the negotiations suggest that progress toward a comprehensive nuclear agreement continues to inch along, but the two sides will need to sort out key remaining issues-and soon-in order to finish by their mid-2015 target date.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 21, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: "We assess that we still have a credible chance of reaching a deal that is in the best interest of America's security, as well as the security of our allies."
Blinken said the talks were "serious, useful and businesslike" and "[w]e have made progress on some issues but gaps remain on others."
Sources tell us that the two most important issues yet to be resolved are the formula for limiting Iran's uranium-enrichment capacity and the sequence and scope of sanctions relief. (See "Time to Close the Iran Deal," for further analysis of the status of the negotiations.)
-- DARYL G. KIMBALL, executive director
Senate Banking Committee Considers New Sanctions
As talks between senior U.S. and P5+1 negotiators and their Iranian counterparts continue, leaders in the Republican-led U.S. Senate, and at least one senior Democrat, are pressing forward on new legislation that could impose new "trigger" sanctions on Iran.
Even if the sanctions did not go into effect immediately, the Obama administration, the foreign ministers of the E.U., France, the U.K., and Germany, former Republican and Democratic national security officials, and most independent experts all agree that the initiation of new sanctions would violate the terms of the Nov. 2013 Joint Plan of Action and could "blow up" the negotiations for a final agreement even before the July 1 deadline arrives.
Referring to a bill being advanced by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), President Barack Obama said in his Jan. 20 State of the Union Address that:
... new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails - alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn't make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.
Menendez says he supports diplomacy but the threat of more sanctions beginning in early July can help provide more leverage in the talks. The Obama administration and U.S. allies dispute that theory.
Deputy Secretary Blinken noted in his Jan. 21 Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony that more pressure at this point is unnecessary because:
Iran already is under intense pressure from the application of the existing sanctions. In recent months, that pressure has actually grown stronger with the dramatic drop in oil prices. Should Iran refuse a reasonable agreement or cheat on its current commitments under the JPoA, the Senate could impose additional measures in a matter of hours, matching or going beyond what the House already has passed.
In response to the threat of new sanctions, Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in Davos Jan. 23 that a vote in U.S. Congress for more sanctions against his country will kill a likely nuclear deal and warned that Iran's parliament would retaliate by passing a bill requiring Iran to increase the level of uranium enrichment.
Even if a final nuclear deal is concluded by July 1, the Kirk-Menendez bill could unravel progress because, it would:
Some proponents of the new sanctions, like Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton, admit that the real goal is to end the negotiations. In remarks to the Heritage Foundation on Jan. 13he said: "...[T]he end of these negotiations isn't an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence ..."
According to The Times of Israel, a senior Israeli government official told diplomatic correspondents during a briefing in Jerusalem that the Netanyahu government "wants new sanctions and an ensuing "crisis in talks" in order to sharpen dilemmas for Iran and lead to an agreement on better terms.
The sponsors of the new Senate sanctions bill, called the "The Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2015," originally planned to introduce the legislation last week and move it to a vote in the Senate Banking Committee last Thursday. Instead, the hearing was moved to Jan. 27 and a vote on the bill in the Committee is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 29.
Sen. Menendez and Sen. Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted today Senate Banking Committee hearing that they will not support a floor vote on the new Iran sanctions bill until at least March 24 in order to try to win support from wavering Democrats.
Senate Republicans could vote to approve the bill without any Democrats, but would eventually need the support of at least 13 to override the promised presidential veto.
Alternative "Pro-Diplomacy" Resolution Introduced
As proponents of the new sanctions legislation try to line-up sponsors, another group of Democratic Senators and one independent have introduced a resolution that offers an alternative that expresses strong support for the ongoing P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran and states that the Senate is prepared to enact additional sanctions against Iran if current diplomatic efforts fail, but refuses to prejudge the outcome.
The resolution was introduced by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Angus King (I-Maine), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), John Tester (D-Mont.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
In a statement issued Jan. 26, Feinstein said:
Enacting new sanctions before the end of the negotiating period would gravely undermine our efforts to reach an agreement with Iran. For those who agree that the sanctions bill in the Banking Committee is detrimental, this resolution provides an option in support of diplomacy. The resolution states that if negotiations fail or if Iran violates any agreement, then it is appropriate for Congress to swiftly pass sanctions.
Whether or not Iran is willing to make the compromises necessary to rejoin the community of nations remains to be seen. But we have an obligation to give our negotiators the time and space needed to test that possibility. We must see this diplomatic opening through.
Sens. Boxer and Paul Hint At Another Option
Two other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in the hearing on Jan. 21 that they are "working on legislation ... to send a clear, unequivocal signal that Iran will be held accountable for its actions and any failure to fulfill its commitments will be met by swift action by Congress."
The alternative bill, Boxer said "... would allow expedited consideration by Congress of legislation to reinstate waived or suspended sanctions against Iran if the president in consultation with the intelligence community, determines that Iran has violated any existing nuclear agreement."
Speaking at a Jan. 25 presidential campaign forum organized by Freedom Partners, a group backed by billionaires Charles and David Koch, Paul said urged his fellow senators to let diplomacy run its course.
"Are you ready to send ground troops into Iran? Are you ready to bomb them? Are you ready to send in 100,000 troops?" he asked.
"I'm a big fan of trying to exert and trying the diplomatic option as long as we can. If it fails, I will vote to resume sanctions and I would vote to have new sanctions," he said. "But if you do it in the middle of negotiations, you're ruining it."
More In-Depth Analysis & Opinion
"Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Separating Myth from Reality," Issue Brief, by Kelsey Davenport, the Arms Control Association, January 23, 2015
"Give Diplomacy With Iran a Chance," by Laurent Fabius, Philip Hammond, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Federica Mogherini, The Washington Post, January 21, 2015
"It's not time for Congress to play 'bad' cop on Iran," The Los Angeles Times, Jan. 27, 2015.
"Playing Politics on Iran," The New York Times, Jan. 23, 2015
"Extending the Iran Nuclear Talks: Not Ideal, but Not Defeat," by Ellie Geranmayeh, in Arms Control Today, January/February 2015
"Looking Beyond the Interim Deal," by Ariel E. Levite, in Arms Control Today, January/February 2015.
"Congress and the Future of the Iran Talks," by William Luers, Thomas Pickering, and Jim Walsh, in Arms Control Today, January/February 2015.
Looking Ahead ...
Jan. 27, 10:00 a.m. - House Foreign Affairs Committee, hearing on "Iran Nuclear Negotiations After the Second Extension: Where Are They Going?," with Eric Edelman, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments; John Hannah, Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Ray Takeyh, Council on Foreign Relations; and Robert Einhorn, Brookings Institution. 2172 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington.
Jan. 27, 10:00 a.m. - Senate Banking Committee, hearing on "Perspectives on the Strategic Necessity of Iran Sanctions," with Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, David Cohen, Undersecretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence; Mark Dubowitz, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; and Patrick Clawson, Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 538 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington.
Jan. 29, 10:00 a.m. - Senate Banking Committee, markup of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015. 538 Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, Webcast on the committee website.
End of March 2015 - Target date for Iran and the P5+1 to reach a political framework agreement.
June 30, 2015 - Deadline for Iran and the P5+1 to complete the technical annexes.