US top negotiator makes clear she wants a deal with Iran

Wendy Sherman sends mixed signals in key address, but leaves no doubt she hopes diplomacy will prevail in face-off over Tehran’s nukes

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

US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman testifies on Capitol Hill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Oct. 3, 2013 (AP/Molly Riley)
US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman testifies on Capitol Hill before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Oct. 3, 2013 (AP/Molly Riley)

WASHINGTON — Amid rising rhetoric in Washington concerning the possibility of a nuclear agreement with Iran in one month’s time, top US nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman seemed to alternate between skepticism over Iran’s negotiating position and praise for progress made thus far in an address on Thursday.

Speaking at the Center for Security and International Studies Thursday evening, Sherman talked up US willingness to reach a deal with Tehran, while still casting doubts as to whether such a deal could be reached by the November 24 deadline. Still, she stressed her desire for a successful resolution of the negotiating process, telling the Iranians that the coming month marked their “best chance” and that now was the time to “finish the job.”

In an address which was heavily promoted by the State Department, the undersecretary of state for political affairs detailed advances that occurred under the Joint Plan of Action interim agreement, including Iran halting the expansion of its overall enrichment capacity; capping its stockpile of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride; stopping the production of uranium enriched to 20 percent; agreeing not to make further advances at the Arak heavy water reactor; and opening the door to “unprecedented daily access for international inspectors to the facilities at Natanz and Fordow.”

“At the time the Joint Plan was announced, many observers expressed profound doubt that Iran would abide by its commitments. But according to the IAEA – the International Atomic Energy Agency – Iran has done what it promised to do,” Sherman asserted. “The result is a nuclear program that is more constrained and transparent than it has been in many years. In turn, the P5+1 has fulfilled its commitment to provide limited sanctions relief.”

Yet Sherman also acknowledged that the negotiations were not proceeding quickly and said that she “didn’t know” if the negotiations would arrive at a deal by the late November deadline.

“All the components of a plan that should be acceptable to both sides are on the table. We have made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable. We have cleared up misunderstandings and held exhaustive discussions on every element of a possible text. However, like any complicated and technically complex diplomatic initiative, this is a puzzle with many interlocking pieces,” she warned.

Sherman noted that the Iranian leadership “would very much hope that the world would conclude that the status quo… should be acceptable” regarding the Islamic Republic’s capacity to enrich uranium. “Obviously, it is not. If it were, we would never have needed to begin this painstaking and difficult negotiation,” she said.

She took a somewhat tougher stance than in other recent comments, when she emphasized Iran’s repeated violations of international nuclear protocols in the past. “The Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran for a reason,” Sherman admonished. “That past has created a thick cloud of doubt that cannot be dissipated by Tehran’s words and promises alone. The world will decide to suspend and then lift nuclear-related sanctions only if and when Iran takes convincing and verifiable steps to show that its nuclear program is and will remain entirely peaceful.” Sherman added that such criteria represented a reasonable standard that Iran can readily meet.

She also rejected suggestions aired in recent weeks that the US might offer additional sanctions relief in return for additional Iranian concessions before a final comprehensive deal is struck. “More extensive relief will come when – and only when – we are able to arrive at a comprehensive deal that addresses the concerns of the world community,” she warned.

The undersecretary stressed that while the US and its negotiating partners were seeking “to develop a durable and comprehensive arrangement that will effectively block all of Iran’s potential paths to fissile material for a nuclear weapon,” they had “proposed to Iran a number of ideas that are equitable, enforceable, and consistent with Tehran’s expressed desire for a viable civilian nuclear program and that take into account that country’s scientific knowhow and economic needs.”

In July, the two sides agreed to extend talks until November 24, but with only a month left to the extension, the sides have appeared reticent to discuss publicly potential terms for an additional extension.

Instead, Sherman emphasized the urgency of the timing. “If Iran truly wants to resolve its differences with the international community and facilitate the lifting of economic sanctions, it will have no better chance than between now and November 24th,” she urged. “This is the time to finish the job.”

Sherman’s comments did not, however, entirely rule out the possibility of a second extension.

Meanwhile, rhetoric in Washington around the possibility of a deal continues to step up, even with Congress on an extended pre-elections recess.

Hours before Sherman’s talk, almost three dozen organizations including J Street, CODEPINK, the Church of the Brethren, the National Iranian American Council, and Americans for Peace Now, signed a letter to Congress expressing “deep concern with inaccurate and counterproductive rhetoric from a handful of Members of Congress regarding possible outcomes of the current negotiations.”

The letter attacked members of Congress who echoed Israel’s stance regarding the terms of a nuclear deal – that a “good deal” would completely dismantle Iran’s uranium enrichment infrastructure. “It is troubling that these members would fail to support a workable agreement which verifiably ensures that Iran would not be able to quickly amass material for nuclear weapons and would ensure that any such effort would be promptly detected and disrupted by the United States and the international community,” the organizations wrote. “A naïve insistence on complete Iranian capitulation on enrichment will likely lead to the fracturing of the international sanctions regime, an unrestricted and unmonitored Iranian nuclear program, and yet another war in the Middle East.”

Iran has maintained throughout the negotiations that it holds a “right to enrich” uranium, rather than the more commonly-accepted right to produce civilian nuclear energy. In the past, Israeli officials suggested that they would reconcile with Iran importing low-enriched uranium necessary to operate civilian facilities, but that Iran not maintain the centrifuges necessary for domestic enrichment.

Leaked reports from the P5+1 negotiations have indicated that a final deal will, in fact, allow Iran to maintain domestic enrichment.

The letter also cited as “particularly irresponsible” recent “threats to oppose any comprehensive agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear program that initially suspends US sanctions on Iran through lawful executive action.”

After a New York Times article published Sunday claimed that the administration planned to circumvent Congress in lifting additional sanctions against Iran, hawkish representatives had jumped to criticize the reported plan.

Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) were quoted in the initial article voicing their anger at the administration’s position. In the following days, Democratic and Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have jumped on the bandwagon.

“While this unilateralism alone is distressing, it is made even more worrisome in light of additional reports that the Administration may be willing to yet again make significant concessions to the Iranians in the nuclear negotiations,” wrote House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a statement issued Wednesday. “As the President and his team know full well, there is overwhelming, bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill about Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, its sponsorship of terrorism, its promotion of instability throughout the region, and its appalling human rights record. Congress will not simply look the other way if the Administration agrees to a deal that does not make sufficient progress in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program.”

Administration representatives have said that the president can suspend sanctions, but that final removal of sanctions in the wake of a comprehensive deal would require Congressional approval.

Israeli officials — notably including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — have publicly stated repeatedly that Iran’s military nuclear capabilities must be dismantled, and have expressed a lack of confidence in the current negotiations’ ability to achieve this goal. Israel fears Western compromises which would remove sanctions from Tehran while not providing enough security to the Jewish state.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Tuesday during a visit to Washington that “sometimes it is better that there is no deal rather than a bad deal.”

AP contributed to this report.

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