The US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and chief nuclear negotiator, Wendy R. Sherman, told the Senate on Thursday that Israel’s security remains a “paramount concern” as the international community tests Iran’s intentions regarding its nuclear program. She asked Congress to give the administration more time to pursue the diplomatic track with the Islamic Republic before further decisions on sanctions are made.
“It will be the Iranian government’s actions in the months ahead that will be a key factor in determining whether we decide the sanctions should remain in place, or whether we can begin to relieve some sanction pressure as Iran addresses our concern,” Sherman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I’m saying this” to Iran, said Sherman, who will meet with other world powers and Iran in Geneva in two weeks. “Come on the 15th of October with concrete, substantive actions that you will take, commitments you will make in a verifiable way, monitoring and verification that you will sign up to, to create some faith that there is reality to this, and our Congress will listen. But I can assure you, if you do not come on the 15th and 16th with that substantive plan that is real and verifiable, our Congress will take action, and we will support them to do so.”
“We will remain in close consultations with our allies and partners in the region, including Israel, whose security remains a paramount focus,” she later added.
Israel is extremely concerned that Iran is stringing the West along with false offers to come clean about its nuclear program in order to buy time to reach a point where it can develop an atomic weapon.
The committee’s hearing on reversing the Iranian nuclear program, chaired by Senator Robert Menendez, took place during the shutdown of the US federal government. America’s ability to enforce sanctions “is being hampered significantly by the shutdown,” warned Sherman, citing the emptying of government offices overseeing adherence to sanctions on Iran. Sherman and Democratic members of the committee repeatedly referred to the complications imposed by the shutdown.
President Hassan Rouhani says he has a mandate to pursue an agreement that satisfies the international community’s concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, said Sherman, and promised that the US is “prepared to test that proposition in a serious way. “
At the UN last week, Rouhani delivered a conciliatory speech in which he said Iran had no intention of building a nuclear weapon and declared his readiness for new negotiations with world powers. But he stressed that Iran would not halt what he said was its “peaceful” nuclear program.
Capping off the visit, Rouhani and Obama held a 15-minute phone call as the Iranian leader was traveling to the airport. It was the first conversation between the nations’ leaders in 34 years and raised hopes that a breakthrough on the nuclear issue could portend even deeper ties between the US and Iran.
But Sherman promised that the administration would not be fooled by Iran. “We must remain mindful of the long history of Iranian deception regarding its nuclear program,” she emphasized.
Sherman said that moving forward, the United States would look for new, concrete, and verifiable actions. She indicated that the United States would seek confidence-building steps from the Iranian government on both the pace and transparency of the nuclear program.
Sherman also gave details of Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of last week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York. She characterized the meeting as the beginning of the process of testing Iran’s intentions, and called Zarif’s presentation “thoughtful”.
Zarif insisted that Iran does not seek nuclear weapons, and presented a number of reasons why it did not make sense for Iran to possess them.
Sherman also told the committee that the US is “absolutely dedicated to the return” of Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini, three Americans being held in Iran.
Levinson, a husband and father of seven who is Jewish, went missing from Kish Island in Iran in March 2007. The former FBI agent was working as a private investigator at the time.
Answering a question from one of the committee members, Sherman indicated that 2014 security assistance funding to Israel would be delayed until a new continuing resolution is passed, and America’s ability to protect Sinai would also be harmed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.