Activists Skeptical About Diplomacy With Iran

By Nathan Guttman

Published October 07, 2009, issue of October 16, 2009.

Reports on progress made in recent diplomatic talks with Iran have left some Jewish activists playing a kind of Greek chorus, expressing skepticism on the sidelines while not interrupting the ongoing drama.

Many of these activists have been gearing up for a push toward tough sanctions against Tehran to curb its nuclear ambitions, and are now worried that the October 1 negotiations between Iran and a group of six nations, including the United States, will mistakenly be viewed as progress. Jewish activists are concerned that the talks will serve as a delay tactic by Tehran — a concern echoed by some key members of Congress who seem to be increasingly impatient with the Islamic Republic.

In the talks, Iran proposed to ship its Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) to Russia and France for enrichment and production of nuclear fuel. That fuel would later be returned to Iran for non-military use. Iran also reportedly agreed to allow inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit its secretly-kept nuclear facility near the city of Qom. Iranian negotiators, however, turned down the American deadline of performing the inspections within two weeks and insisted on a three-week timeframe.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee noted, in an October 5 memo that Iran’s move “does nothing to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions.” The group stressed that Iran, according to multiple resolutions adopted by the Security Council, must fully suspend uranium enrichment, allow inspections of all nuclear facilities, come clean on all covert nuclear activity it might have, and reveal all nuclear sites. AIPAC argued that if Iran does not adhere to all these requirements “America and its allies must impose crippling sanctions on the regime.”

These crippling sanctions can come from two possible sources. The Security Council could pass another resolution, and Congress can move forward on legislation aimed at preventing Iran from importing refined petroleum products, a move that experts say will severely hurt Iran’s economy.

While pushing sanctions in the United Nations is solely in the hands of the Obama administration, Congress is free to decide independently on unilateral legislation imposing sanctions in Iran. Thus far, the administration has been holding back Congress, but the September 25 revelation of the secret Qom facility made the White House more open to the possibility of sanctions, according to a congressional staff member.

An October 5 hearing in the Senate Banking Committee illustrated that some members of Congress are feeling pressed to take action — and pressing the administration, in return.

In a heated exchange during the hearing, Florida Dem. Robert Menendez demanded to know the administration’s benchmarks to measure progress in the talks with Iran. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg replied that if Iran actually ships out its LEU, that would be “a tangible sign of progress.” Menendez pressed the administration official and warned the clock is ticking. Steinberg tried to ease lawmakers’ concerns by making clear that while the administration does not want to “interrupt this progress” in negotiations with Iran, it will not allow talks “to drag out indefinitely.”

Lawmakers sponsoring the key pieces of legislation imposing sanctions on Iran have inched closer in recent weeks to getting their bills approved. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in mid-September that “absent some compelling evidence as to why I should do otherwise, I will mark up my bill next month and begin the process of tightening the screws on Tehran.” A committee spokeswoman said Berman’s view remains unchanged even after the October 1 talks, but no date for markup has been set.

Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, made clear in the October 5 hearing that he, too, is ready to move on a sanctions bill that would include measures targeting Iran’s refined petroleum imports, as well as its central bank. “Congress must equip President Obama with a full range of tools to deal with the threats posed by Iran,” Dodd said in a prepared statement.

Contact Nathan Guttman at

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