As sides near deal, Iran lawmakers may force Tehran to up enrichment

As sides near deal, Iran lawmakers may force Tehran to up enrichment

Nuclear chief says country will be bound by bill to enrich uranium to 60 percent, potentially scuttling interim agreement with world powers

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, center, arrives for the Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Sunday, February 3, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Matthias Schrader)
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, center, arrives for the Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on Sunday, February 3, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Matthias Schrader)

A bill moving through Iran’s parliament would force Tehran to enrich uranium to 60 percent, despite the fact that the country does not need it, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear chief said Saturday.

The comments by Ali Akbar Salehi came a day after an EU spokesman said progress had been made on talks between Tehran and six world powers on an interim deal to limit nuclear work.

The Iranian bill, which was drafted as a response to a proposal in Congress to increase sanctions should nuclear talks fail, calls on the country to enrich uranium to 60 percent. The bill has the backing of 218 of the Majlis’s 290 members and if passed could scuttle the nuclear deal and ratchet up tensions with the international community.

“If the Iranian lawmakers approve the draft bill and turn it into a law then we will be obliged to obey their decision,” Salehi said according to a report in the state run IRNA news agency.

However he added that “We do not need 60 percent enrichment.”

Iran’s parliament is considered more hard-line than the administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has made several overtures toward detente with the West.

On Saturday, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said his boss Javad Zarif had invited EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to visit Tehran, according to several Iranian media reports.

EU spokesman Michael Mann said Ashton noted the reports “with interest” according to a Reuters report.

In the US, 59 senators now back the sanctions package which spurred the Iranian proposal. The count brings Congress closer to passing a bill both Tehran and the Obama administration consider a threat to the interim nuclear deal, due to be implemented later this month.

The nuclear deal will give Iran some $7 billion in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on nuclear enrichment and more robust oversight. On Thursday, representatives from both sides held high-level technical talks on implementing the deal.

However, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Friday that a deal had not been cemented.

“There have been a few outstanding issues, but at this point, the reports that everything has been finalized are incorrect,” she said.

Earlier Friday, the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Araqchi, who said that the sides had resolved all issues and that the negotiators would now turn to their respective governments for approval. Over the last two days, the six major world powers involved in the talks, the so-called P5+1, were represented by the European Union.

“All the outstanding political and technical issues were resolved but the final decision will be taken by the respective capitals,” IRNA quoted Araqchi, who reportedly added that Iran and the P5+1 would have two days to accept of reject the deal.

Araqchi told Reuters that the negotiators had found “solutions for every difference.”

The Obama Administration fears the new economic restrictions passed by Congress could jeopardize the deal. By nixing the diplomatic chances, the administration argues, Congress would be making a potential war with Iran more likely.

The senators in favor include every Republican except Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rand Paul of Kentucky, aides said. Sixteen Democrats are on board including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a top ally of President Barack Obama. Many more are understood to be sitting on the fence.

With the House of Representatives strongly backing more economic pressure on Tehran, the Senate is now close to the 60 votes needed to pass most legislation. And advocates are not far away from rounding up the 67 votes they would need to override a presidential veto, which the White House has vowed if the bill makes it out of Congress. Aides provided the latest tally on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

“The need for additional prospective sanctions is already clear,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-NJ, who drafted the bill, said Friday. Since the interim accord, he argued, Iran has made several announcements related to its uranium and plutonium programs that reinforce the need for Washington not to let up on the pressure. “This is hardly a march to war,” Menendez said.

The legislation would blacklist several Iranian industrial sectors and threaten banks and companies around the world with being banned from the US market if they help Iran export any more oil. The provisions would only take effect if Tehran violates the six-month interim deal or lets it expire without a comprehensive nuclear agreement.

Sanctions advocates say the administration needs the added leverage of sanctions just around the corner to secure a better deal than the last one. In Geneva, world powers promised Tehran some $7 billion in sanctions relief for actions that only freeze, not dismantle, central elements of the nuclear program. Iran insists its program is solely for peaceful energy and medical research purposes.

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