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Signs of More Western Cooperation Regarding Iran Nuclear Negotiations

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was quoted as saying that the presence of European powers in the negotiations was not necessary during this past week. For some time, the talks have been taking place primarily between Iran and the United States, and this trend has apparently deepened over time. However, US Secretary of State John Kerry indicated that the current recess would serve as an opportunity to discuss those talks with officials from Britain, France, and Germany, and to explain the progress that has supposedly been made between the two main negotiators.

Despite their diminished role, the three European powers have defined interests in the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and the prospect of sanctions relief that would eventually open up the Islamic Republic to Western investment. It is not entirely clear where the three US allies stand with respect to American negotiators demands, although France has developed a reputation for maintaining a more aggressive negotiating position. And this was reaffirmed by Al Jazeera on Friday when it reported that French President Francois Hollande was expected to raise objections to the emerging deal when he and the executives if Britain and Germany met with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Moghereini.

But regardless of the potential differences of opinion among the individual negotiating parties, Hot Air indicates that all four Western powers are reacting with similar disdain to the intransigent positions still being maintained by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The site reports that the Iranians have once again “escalated their demands for sanctions relief” in the wake of the major economic concessions that served simply to retain Iran as part of the process.

Although the conservative authors at Hot Air have participated in the chorus of critics decrying the Obama administration for giving away too much during the negotiations, the site now indicates that the latest demands are simply too much.

The US and EU reportedly are in agreement that the expectation of immediate, full-scale removal of sanctions is impossible and inadvisable. What’s more, they have indicated that not only should sanctions relief be phased in as Iran demonstrates cooperation with the deal, but that cooperation should be determined in part by whether Iran addresses the concerns expressed by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been conducting a long-running probe into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran plainly refuses to accept this probe as an element of the P5+1 deal, according to one European diplomat. This casts further doubt on whether the negotiating parties will even be able to secure a framework agreement by the end of the month, much less a detailed agreement by the end of June. Officials on both sides of the talks have declared that there will be no further extensions of the talks, which were originally scheduled to wrap up last summer.

Perhaps the clearest sign that a framework agreement was in sight came in the form of reports that a draft agreement had been circulating in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the latest round of talks took place. But at the same time that this draft was being cited as evidence of progress, it was also being cited by critics of the talks to support their claims that the emerging deal is weak, excessively generous to Tehran, and leaves Iran as a threshold nuclear state.

In responding to these criticisms, US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said on Thursday that the supposed draft does not exist, according to the Kuwait News Agency. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest joined in this denial, which also appears to contradict Iranian officials’ claims that the negotiations are 90 percent complete. The White House declared early this week that the chances of reaching an agreement stood at about 50 percent.

But refuting the reports of a draft agreement would be unlikely to appease members of the US Congress, especially Republicans, who have consistently viewed President Obama as being too soft throughout the negotiating process.

The Tower reports that California Democratic Representative Brad Sherman used a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday to challenge Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken over the administration’s perceived naivety regarding Iran’s trustworthiness following the singing of a deal.

Sherman described as “preposterous” Blinken’s suggestion that Iran would be prevented from sneaking out to nuclear weapons capability simply because it would be be “legally bound under the Non-Proliferation Treaty not to make or acquire a nuclear weapon.”

However, in response to the challenge, Blinken clarified his remarks by suggesting that the Obama administration is committed to taking serious action in reaction to any recognized violation by Iran. “If Iran makes an agreement, it will make it with the full knowledge that if it violates the agreement, there will be severe consequences,” he said.

But such consequences would be greatly dependent upon the details of whatever verification methods are established in the nuclear agreement, and media reports have been sparse on this topic amidst general focus on the question of how much enrichment capacity Iran will be permitted to retain. Iranian non-cooperation with the IAEA probe and Tehran’s apparent refusal to consider that probe part of the nuclear agreement may be outstanding sources of concern about whether verification methods will be established to a degree that is satisfying to the West.

Such concerns seem to contribute to the urgency with which much of the US Congress is pushing for a role in approving a nuclear agreement. Indeed, the issue of verification is a major part of the bill pending in the Senate which would necessitate that the executive branch present the agreement to the legislature before signing, and then periodically provide evidence that Tehran’s obligations have been met.

Support for these efforts is similarly strong in the Senate and the House of Representatives, and The Tower reports that on Friday four-fifths of the House membership signed onto a letter informing the Obama administration that they would only consider granting permanent relief of economic sanctions on Iran if they were first fully convinced that the relevant agreement cut off all Iranian pathways to a nuclear weapon.

The further implication of this is that many of those congresspersons do not trust the Obama administration to generate such a deal, based on the latest reports including the claim of an existing draft. As such, the Republican Party is continuing with its crusade to prevent the emerging deal from being finalized, with support from some members of the Democratic Party.

The Washington Free Beacon reported on Friday that some members of the House of Representatives have begun pushing for the body to strip funding for the nuclear deal from the 2016 budget.

“After two negotiation extensions, billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and an emerging deal that would utterly fail to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program, we should abandon these talks until Tehran is prepared to make meaningful concessions that would truly block its path to a bomb,” wrote Representatives Peter Roskam of Illinois and Lee Zeldin of New York in a letter scheduled to be delivered to the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

This makes it clear that conflict remains strong between the presidency and the legislature over this issue, even at a time when the Obama administration and its European allies seem to be standing up against persistent Iranian demands. In its public statements, the administration accuses its congressional opponents of trying to sabotage a deal without fully understanding what it will entail. Pressure exerted on his own party has been somewhat effective at preventing Congress from moving on oversight and sanctions before the framework agreement is finalized, but Democrats have only agreed to delay floor votes on new legislation while continuing to signal their intention of pursuing a harder line with Iran.

In light of this, the administration is also making popular appeals.to the public on both sides of the negotiations. On Thursday, according to Reuters, Obama sent a message directly to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Iranian New Year celebration of Nowruz, in which he referred to the talks as the “best opportunity in decades” for improved relations between the two countries, and warned of “people, in both our countries and beyond, who oppose a diplomatic resolution.”

Certain critics of the talks, including the leadership of Israel, have long been committed to positions that are widely judged as impractical in much the same way as Iran’s demands for no restrictions on enrichment and the immediate lifting of all sanctions. But Arutz Sheva reported on Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said that while his nation still opposes the deal currently taking shape, it would be willing to accept an agreement in which Iran was permitted to retain some portion of its current stockpile of approximately 10,000 operation centrifuges.

“The most important thing is that the lifting of restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would depend on Iran’s change of behavior. That it would stop supporting terrorism, stop its aggression against just about every country in the region, and stop calling and threatening the annihilation of Israel,” Netanyahu told NBC.

Other critics of the talks have variously expressed worry that the negotiations practically encourage the West to look the other way on Iran’s regional activities and domestic repression. As the possibility of sanctions relief looms, more questions are arising about what sorts of activities a new influx of capital would finance.