Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington to address a joint session of Congress and describe the features of a “very bad deal” taking shape amidst the current negotiations. The eager reception of Netanyahu by the majority of American legislators apparently prefaced more aggressive action on the issue, as with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s efforts to fast track a floor vote on the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which would require extensive congressional oversight before any agreement took full effect.
That plan fell through in the midst of Democratic opposition, although the majority of Democrats reportedly still prefer a harder line on Iran than the president has taken. Monday’s letter can thus be viewed as a sort of consolation prize for Republicans who are impatient to see progress toward a much better nuclear deal. It falls short of formalizing congressional oversight, but it does publicly make clear that such oversight can be expected in the future. This is something that Democratic opponents of the Iranian regime can be expected to agree with as well, even if they would not have endorsed the drafting of the all-Republican letter.
Although there is still a good deal of discord with respect to congressional strategy, including the question of how and when to act in defiance of the president, it has been clear for some time that there is solid bipartisan support for exerting more pressure on the Islamic Republic and attempting to a compel it to make concessions that do not appear to be in the offing at the present moment.
As noted last week, this bipartisan report also appears to reflect the attitudes of the constituency of both Republicans and Democrats. A previous Fox News poll that showed results to this effect has now been corroborated by a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that finds 71 percent of respondents are skeptical of or outright opposed to the nuclear deal that is currently taking shape, in the sense that they do not think it will significantly constrain Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapons.
What’s more, many in Congress are generally opposed to what they perceive as the pursuit of broader rapprochement with Iran by the Obama administration. And this fear is significantly shared by America’s traditional allies in the Middle East. On Monday, the USA Today quoted Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute as saying, “Distrust in Saudi Arabia toward the United States hasn’t been this high since 1973.”
The same article goes on to emphasize something else that was reported last week, that the Iraqi offensive against Islamic State militants in Tikrit has been recognized by much of the Arab world as an indication of the extent of Iranian influence in its neighboring, war-torn countries.
Rubin points out that even if the US isn’t directly coordinating with Iran as it further extends that influence, it is apparently allowing it. By extension, the US is also helping to preserver the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a staunch Iranian ally whom the US had previously expected to step down in the midst of a popular uprising. These trends of entrenched Iranian influence are naturally a source of anxiety for America’s Arab allies.
Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to alleviate some of this anxiety by traveling to Saudi Arabia and outlining US policy in the region, but it was not immediately clear whether this had affected Riyadh’s thinking on the topic. Now Kerry is focused once again on Europe, where negotiations with Iran are taking place in advance of a March 24 deadline for a framework agreement, to precede a final agreement by the end of June.
A report in Reuters on Monday suggests an interest in presenting a unified front by negotiators from the US and the other Western members of the P5+1 – Britain, France, and Germany – in order to strengthen the deal that has been so widely derided as failing to safeguard Western interests. Over the weekend, Kerry told reporters that the US is “on the same page” as France, which has developed a reputation for maintaining a particularly demanding position during the negotiating process.
Comments by Kerry and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius described the need for a stronger accord inclusive of a significant reduction in Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability and an expansion of international monitoring to confirm its compliance with whatever restrictions are part of the final deal. An unnamed diplomat also declared that the ball is in Iran’s court, signifying that the outcome of negotiations relies in large part upon Tehran’s willingness to compromise on various positions that it has held as red lines up to this point.
Iran’s relationship with international inspectors is one of these positions, as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has insisted that he will not accept any other-than-ordinary inspections regime. The persistence of this commitment will perhaps be tested in the coming month, as Reuters reports that Iranian officials met with the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday and made arrangements to have further discussions on April 20.
Of course, this suggests that outstanding issue with the IAEA will not be resolved until well past the deadline for a framework agreement. The misalignment of the ongoing IAEA probe and P5+1 talks have been an issue throughout the process, partly owing to Iran’s failure to provide sufficient answers to inspectors’ questions about the past military dimensions of the country’s nuclear program.
The probe has dragged on as the IAEA sought these answers and access to certain suspicious sites that have been kept off limits by Iranian officials. Early in the negotiating process, the deadline of which has been extended twice, it was expected that the outcome of the IAEA inquiry would affect the decision making of Western negotiators, but the delays have made this problematic.
The Tower reports that to date, inspectors have had serious discussions with Iran about one of twelve aspects of its nuclear program and have raised two other topics, but that the remaining nine have not been discussed at all.
The Tower adds that comments by IAEA officials and analysis by the New York Times both indicate that Iran has failed to abide by past agreements, has very likely concealed military dimensions of its nuclear work, and has consistently operated secret facilities that make it difficult for international inspectors to confirm that Iran has curtailed its nuclear enrichment to the extent that it claims.
The issue of secret enrichment also speaks to the fact that in February the National Council of Resistance of Iran identified a facility in a Tehran suburb where the Iranian regime was reportedly conducting undeclared uranium enrichment and advanced research. All of this naturally enhances the concerns of those who are opposed to the seemingly soft approach of the Obama administration.