GENEVA — Western diplomats are hailing the latest nuclear talks with Iran as the most constructive in decades. But that isn’t stopping hawks in Congress like Sen. Marco Rubio from calling for a new round of crippling sanctions against the country — a development that some observers fear could spoil the fragile negotiations.
On Wednesday, Iran and six world powers wrapped up two days of nuclear talks in Geneva on a surprisingly positive note. In a rare joint statement, the nations called the discussions "substantive and forward looking" and formalized the next round of negotiations in Geneva on Nov. 7-8. The United States and the European Union depicted the talks as "substantive," "very important," and "positive."
One senior Obama administration official beamed with excitement. "I’ve been doing this now for about two years, and I have never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before," said the official. "I would say we really are beginning that type of negotiation where one could imagine that you could possible have an agreement."
But back in Washington, the enthusiasm is not shared by Congressional hawks who immediately dismissed the talks and proposed a new round of sanctions against Tehran — even though the administration had yet to reveal details about the progress of discussions.
"No one should be impressed by what Iran appears to have brought to the table in Geneva," said Sen. Marco Rubio in a statement attached to a new resolution calling for additional sanctions. Rubio added earlier: "Now is not the time to suspend sanctions, but to increase them on the Iranian regime."
The House of Representatives already passed a bill that would choke off almost all of Iran’s remaining international oil sales in July. This week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers threatened to pass that House bill in the absence of an Iranian offer to "halt and dismantle" its nuclear program.
"If Iranian actions fail to match the rhetorical reassurances of the last two weeks, we are prepared to move forward with new sanctions to increase pressure on the government in Tehran," said the group of lawmakers, which included Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and others.
To a number of more dovish lawmakers in Congress, additional sanctions threaten to erode the already minimal amount of trust between Washington and Tehran. "There are very hawkish voices being raised and there is a push for additional sanctions in the Senate," Rep David Price (D-NC) told The Cable. "I think it’s ill-timed."
The Iranians are looking for a nuclear deal that would alleviate the dozens of U.S. and international sanctions punishing its economy. For their part, the six world powers — which includes the U.S., China, Russia, France, the U.K. and Germany — want verifiable curbs on Iran’s nuclear program that guarantee its purported peaceful aims.
It remains unclear whether the administration will do anything to convince lawmakers to postpone the sanctions. When asked if it would ask lawmakers to hold off, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters "I don’t have a prediction of that at this point."
Back in Geneva, a senior administration official downplayed the White House’s ability to influence Congress on this issue even if it wanted to. "The prerogative in the end is theirs, but I am hopeful that we will continue to be strong partners with the same objective," the official said. "They’ll make their own decisions about how best to proceed. And we all have to think through and reflect on what we learned here, what we discussed here, and how to best proceed forward."
Administration officials didn’t divulge a date of its next briefing with Congress but Psaki said chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman would lead the effort when she returns to Washington. At a Senate panel earlier this month, Sherman said that the White House was willing to potentially soften some of its sanctions if Tehran took "verifiable, concrete actions" to delay its nuclear program. Sherman also urged lawmakers to hold off on imposing new sanctions on Iran until Tehran detailed its potential nuclear concessions at this week’s talks.
The Rouhani government insists on the right to continue enriching uranium on its own soil, something the White House has hinted it might accept under stringent inspections, but hasn’t officially accepted. Tehran has also yet to signal a clear willingness to shutter its underground, heavily-fortified nuclear plant at Qom, a source of particular concern for Israel because it is largely impervious to their air strikes, or to dismantle any of its centrifuges.
The Iranians, for the first time in a decade of on-again-off-again talks, agreed to conduct discussions in English. It was seen as a goodwill gesture, earning gratitude from the world powers. "We spoke in English, which makes a real difference," said a European official.
While world powers are likely to demand Iran ship out some of its near-weapons-grade uranium stockpile, Iranian diplomat Abbas Araghchi raised eyebrows before the talks by declaring such a move a "red line." On Wednesday, he softened that stance as well: "Red lines should not be an obstacle," he told a small group of journalists after tonight’s press conference. "They are not reversible, but can be dealt with." Araghchi speculated that "if there is enough good will on each side, we can complete a deal in three to six months."
Details of the new Iranian proposal, however, remained scant. American, European and Iranian officials steadfastly refused to respond to inquiries on the contours of the proposal or the follow-up discussions. Analysts said Iran’s proposal opened potential avenues to agreement by dealing directly with the possible final status deal at the outset.
"The Iranian proposal is more structured and clear than previous Western proposals because the previous Western proposals only included the first steps." said the National Iranian American Council’s Trita Parsi, who supports diplomacy. "The Iranian proposal goes from the beginning to the end and has the end defined."