US bill requiring zero enrichment would be a deal breaker

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Implementation of the deal with Iran to roll back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief will begin on January 20. It puts a temporary freeze on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for around $7 billion in economic sanctions relief. The concession on sanctions is, in practice, a modest one on behalf of the West, as the relief will amount to just one percent GDP growth for Iran in 2014, as predicted by the World Bank in a recent report. The sanctions that will remain untouched by the interim deal will continue to cost Iran $5 billion a month in oil revenue and will prevent the nation from accessing the majority of the $100 billion it keeps in foreign markets. Also as part of the interim agreement, Iran will be able to continue enriching uranium, but at a restricted level.

Meanwhile in the US, the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act (S.1881), introduced by Democratic Senator Menendez from New Jersey before the December recess, continues to attract support in the Senate. The bill would impose financial sanctions against Iran if it were to renege on the terms of the interim deal, or if a long term deal wasn’t agreed to after the end of the six month trial period. However, more critically a provision in the bill requires that Iran reduce its uranium enrichment to zero.

Fears have abounded that this new legislation could potentially undermine the deal, and remain a threat to the diplomatic approach. While Iran understands that certain political tactics are sometimes employed to appease domestic audiences, this hardline, all or nothing approach to foreign policy by the US Congress risks discouraging Iran from cooperating at all with the international community, and an equally hard-line, reactive response from the Iranian parliament, where already representatives have started to threaten increasing enrichment to 60%. By including a provision for zero enrichment, the bill would constrain future talks by setting the terms of an agreement before any negotiations have started.

The announcement of the deal’s implementation agreement last Sunday has managed to put the brakes on this new US legislation--at least in the short term. In an attempt to ease concerns, the Administration gave legislators full access to the text of the agreement yesterday. However, the text has not been released to the public, although a summary of the technical provisions was released by the White House late last evening.

Those US lawmakers who have been advocating for S.1881 have by and large expressed disapproval of the implementation agreement, calling it an advancement of “a deeply flawed agreement” which “fails to address critical aspects of Iran’s weaponization research.” Some have gone further to say that the US will be giving “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism billions of dollars while allowing the mullahs to keep their illicit nuclear infrastructure in place.”

Such critics point to actions taken by Iran to further develop their nuclear program since the November deal was struck. Indeed, Iran has continued enriching uranium at twenty percent, continued construction at its nuclear site in Arak, and has been building new centrifuges. But these actions did not break a deal which until now had not been implemented; the US has likewise continued and extended its existing sanctions regime. The real test will be when the January 20th implementation kicks in and both parties to the agreement will have to comply with its terms. The deal needs time to play out before it can be determined whether both sides will live up to their respective commitments.

The US-Iran relationship has long been rocky and built on mutual mistrust. It is understandable that US lawmakers and others in the West are skeptical to put their faith in a relationship that is unstable. Sanctions may have played some role in limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the truth is always more complex. More sanctions, or the threat of them, at this time would likely backfire and strengthen the hand of hardliners on both sides. Equally important, the provision requiring zero enrichment is a hopeless and counterproductive measure that would hinder any future negotiations.

Some supporters, including Republican Senator John McCain insist that the new legislation would in fact aid the US in its negotiations with Iran by forcing the nation to give up all of its nuclear activity. But Iran won’t agree to a deal that precludes all enrichment, new sanctions legislation has the real potential to derail the deal, and potentially renew hostilities with a nation in an already unstable region of the world. It is important to think of the broader implications that sanctions legislation could have.

Although the Iran deal and sanctions legislation is proving to be a partisan issue in the US Congress, it is important to keep in mind the collective end goal: a nuclear weapons free Iran. All lawmakers share this common objective--now is the time to decide how to move forward in a constructive way. At this moment in time, bill S.1881 is the principal threat to achieving a nuclear weapons free Iran. Aside from imposing new sanctions, the bill’s zero enrichment provision could prove to be a deal breaker, stunting future negotiations and hindering US-Iran relations.

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