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WASHINGTON, Jul 20 2013 (IPS) - For the first time in many months, supporters of intensified diplomatic engagement with Iran appear to be gaining strength here.
Following last month’s surprise election of Hassan Rouhani – widely considered the most moderate of a field of six candidates – as the Islamic Republic’s next president, the possibility of a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme has become more widely accepted.
That was reflected most dramatically this week by the fact that 131 members of the hawkish, Republican-led House of Representatives – including a majority of House Democrats – signed a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to “reinvigorat(e) U.S. efforts to secure a negotiated nuclear agreement”.
The letter, whose signatories included 17 Republicans, suggested that Washington should be prepared to relax bilateral and multilateral sanctions against Iran in exchange for “significant and verifiable concessions” at the negotiating table. It also implicitly warned against adding new sanctions at such a sensitive moment.
“We must also be careful not to pre-empt this potential opportunity by engaging in actions that delegitimize the newly elected president and weaken his standing relative to hardliners within the regime who oppose his professed ‘policy of reconciliation and peace’,” the letter stated.
Remarkably, most of the signatories – who together made up nearly a third of the House’s 435 members – signed on to the letter after a particularly bellicose appearance by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a widely-viewed public-affairs television programme last Sunday in which he urged Washington to increase pressure, including threats of military action, against Tehran and called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful vanguard of the Israel lobby in Washington, took no public position on the letter. However, the group, which generally promotes the policies of the Israeli government, made clear that they would prefer that lawmakers not sign it, according to knowledgeable sources.
“This is critical because it shows that there is a strong and bipartisan constituency even in the U.S. Congress, which has been one of the most inflexible elements in the U.S. government, that understands there is a historic opportunity before us and wishes to ensure that we do our utmost to explore it,” Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), told IPS.
“Letters of this kind almost never get more than 30 signatures, and this one got well over that number, including some senior members and important Republicans, as well. It tells us that things are changing,” he added.
Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network (NSN), echoed that assessment. “The willingness of 131 members to sign this letter reflects a bipartisan expert consensus that’s been emerging over the last eight months or so that negotiations need space and focus to succeed,” she said. “That consensus has been strengthened by the election results in Iran.”
The latest developments came as senior U.S. officials met their counterparts in the so-called P5+1 (U.S., France, Britain, Russia, China plus Germany) in Brussels in anticipation of a new round of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme that is likely to take place in September, at least one month after Rouhani takes office Aug. 4.
Created in 2006, the P5+1’s last meeting with Tehran took place in April in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The group reportedly tabled an offer to ease sanctions on Iran’s trade in gold and other precious metals and its petrochemical exports as a confidence-building measure (CBM) in exchange for Tehran’s suspending its 20-percent enrichment of uranium and transferring its existing stockpile out of the country.
U.S. officials have told reporters that Iran has not yet formally responded to the offer and that therefore Washington is not yet prepared to modify the package. At the same time, the officials said Tehran should not see it as a “take-it-or-leave-it” proposal and that if it wanted a more comprehensive deal, the P5+1 would be prepared to discuss it.
Earlier this week, 29 former senior U.S. experts and foreign diplomats, including some with experience in negotiating with Iran, sent their own letter to Obama.
It urged him to show greater flexibility, a point on which three of the signatories, former U.S. Ambs. Thomas Pickering and William Luers, as well as a top nuclear-arms expert, Jim Walsh of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, elaborated in an essay in this week’s New York Review of Books.
“The United States is the dominant world power and, ‘negotiating from strength,’ should take the initiative and communicate directly with the new (Iranian) leadership,” said the essay, which included a detailed, step-by-step plan for reciprocal concessions leading to a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Among other recommendations, it called for Obama to send a brief, private message of congratulations to Rouhani on the latter’s inauguration; suggest, via friendly states, that the two meet personally, “perhaps as early as during the September UN General Assembly,” and, parallel to those steps, establish “regular, even routine, bilateral discussions” on regional issues, “perhaps beginning with Iraq and Afghanistan (and even Syria).”
The latest developments appear to substantially reduce the chances that Congress will enact new unilateral sanctions against Iran before the end of the summer, and possibly the end of the year, according to sources on Capitol Hill.
Until this week, it was considered a foregone conclusion that the House would pass a tough new package designed to tighten existing sanctions and impose a de facto oil embargo against Iran before its August recess. The leadership in the Democratic-led Senate has indicated it has no plans to act before September, if then.
The widely respected Capitol Hill CQ Roll Call newspaper reported Friday that new economic penalties against Tehran are unlikely until the end of the year “at the earliest” and that “the slowdown …is starting to worry hawks on Capitol Hill and in Israel.”
“There’s clearly an understanding forming in Congress about the stakes involved in these negotiations,” said Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at the Ploughshares Fund, a California-based global-security foundation.
“What this means is that for bills to go forward, there will need to be clarity about whether the negotiation track has serious potential, and those discussions will intensify in the fall, so there will be hesitation by many in Congress to get too far ahead of the administration,” he added.
Moreover, the fact that 131 House members signed the just-released letter could persuade the House Republican leadership to put off a vote on the pending package, according to sources on Capitol Hill.
They said the leadership, which works closely with AIPAC on Iran-related legislation, prefers to win by overwhelming margins – often approaching unanimity — on such bills, and that the possibility of substantial division suggested by the letter may act as a deterrent.
“Public support in Congress for engaging Iran at the negotiating table has grown markedly since Rouhani’s election,” according to Dylan Williams, director of government affairs for J Street, a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group.
“This letter sends a clear signal – both here and overseas – that there exists a politically viable path to resolving concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme through diplomacy,” he added, noting that among the signers were 22 members of the foreign affairs and armed services committees.
Earlier this month, all but one of the 46 members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee signed a letter to Obama urging him to increase pressure on Iran through enhanced sanctions despite Rouhani’s election.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.
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