US official talks up potential for cooperation with Iran

As P5+1 discussions wrap up, White House adviser indicates Washington could improve relations with Tehran, but needs deal that ‘cuts off all the possible paths’ to nuke

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Philip Gordon, National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, arrives at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 29, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Philip Gordon, National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, arrives at the State Department in Washington, Monday, July 29, 2013. (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON — A day after top-level talks at the P5+1 concluded in New York, a top White House official discussed recent progress in US-Iranian relations and the potential for improving ties with Tehran pending a nuclear agreement, while still offering a note of caution that change could be slow in coming.

Speaking on the one-year anniversary of US President Barack Obama’s historic phone call to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region Philip Gordon noted that there had been significant progress in US-Iranian relations in the ensuing year.

Gordon said Saturday evening that the US and Iran “have the potential to do important business with each other,” gesturing toward the possibility of increased regional coordination between the two states.

In his speech before the United Nations earlier this week, Rouhani warned that such cooperation would not occur before a comprehensive nuclear deal resulted in the removal of US-led sanctions against Tehran.

At the same time, Gordon cautiously noted that a new relationship between Washington and Tehran would be a multi-generational process.

Although a top-level meeting between the two countries’ leaders remains elusive, Gordon emphasized that contacts between the US and Iranian governments have become near-routine.

He made the remarks to the national leadership conference of the National Iranian American Council on Saturday evening. During the remarks, Gordon talked up the potential for cultural and educational exchanges between Iranians and Americans, while also warning that the administration was closely monitoring Tehran’s human rights record and the fate of US citizens imprisoned in Iran.

Israel has lobbied passionately against detente with Tehran while the country continues to develop its nuclear program, saying Iran remains committed to Israel’s destruction despite a softer visage it has displayed in the international arena since Rouhani’s election last year.

The White House says robust sanctions will remain in place unless Iran curbs its enrichment program, but has fretted that Congressional action to bolster penalties could push Tehran away from the negotiations.

Gordon repeated administration warnings regarding the potential impact of Congressional legislation that would increase the sanctions regime currently in place, or create a threat of additional sanctions should nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 fail to yield a comprehensive agreement. He said that although the administration appreciated Congressional action passing sanctions in the past, any new sanctions would interfere with the administration’s ability to negotiate a deal.

The latest round of talks under the framework of the Joint Plan of Action toward a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran concluded Friday without an agreement. Senior administration officials who recapped the talks declined to comment on whether progress had been achieved toward resolving any of the major divides, including the fate of Iran’s Arak heavy water plant.

Eight weeks remain before the November 24 deadline for reaching an agreement. Speaking Friday, a senior administration official noted that it was “not a staggering amount of time” and that “the gaps are still serious.”

Speaking about the talks, Gordon said that the US needs an agreement that “cuts off all the possible paths” to a nuclear weapon, specifying that those paths included covert nuclear development and plutonium enrichment as well as the uranium enrichment that stands at the heart of the negotiations.

Council founder and president Trita Parsi addressed the conference earlier Saturday, warning that time was running out to reach a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran regardless of the November 24 deadline. Parsi, who earlier this week wrote in Foreign Policy that “even optimists recognize that the prospects are dimming for a comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and the West,” cautioned council members that no president elected in 2016 “will spend political capital” to lift sanctions on Iran.

The council has been among the leading groups lobbying Congress against additional nuclear sanctions and to support the interim nuclear deal and a comprehensive long-term agreement.

Over the summer, it launched a “Seal the Deal” campaign to push lawmakers to approve an agreement if one were achieved by the original July 20 deadline.

As the latest round of talks in New York began, Parsi released a statement in which he noted that progress had been made in the past year, but “now the tough work must commence to seal the deal once and for all.”

“Both sides face significant domestic constraints that cannot be ignored,” he wrote. “But it would be a mistake to think that pressure can force one side or the other to sacrifice their domestic politics to get a deal at this point.”

The conference will continue in Washington through Monday, culminating with a legislative action day on Capitol Hill.

The legislative focus was clear in Saturday’s agenda, with attendees participating in a lecture on policy and legislative action, as well as a roundtable on “NIAC, Congress, and Sealing the Deal with Iran.”

Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) and J Street’s Director of Governmental Affairs Dylan Williams both participated in the roundtable, during which Ellison warned that his fellow members of Congress were frequently unaware of the international implications of their statements.

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