WASHINGTON -- With talks set to resume over Iran’s nuclear program, President Barack Obama worked to build support at home Tuesday for negotiations and to ward off any move instead for new sanctions.
Obama made his case in a two-hour closed meeting with key U.S. senators from both parties and later in public before a previously scheduled meeting with CEOs. Talks are set to start anew Wednesday in Geneva. As the Obama administration has pursued those negotiations, pressure has mounted from Israel and from many in Congress against a short-term deal that would ease sanctions.
The White House said Obama had made it clear in his meeting with the senators “that achieving a peaceful resolution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is profoundly in America’s national security interest.”
The president said later that sanctions had forced Iran to the negotiating table and it was time to test whether the regime was ready to rejoin the world community.
Israel and Saudi Arabia, key U.S. regional allies, don’t trust Iran and are alarmed over the prospect of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement and any reduction of sanctions. But Obama said the most powerful sanctions against Iran’s oil, banking and financial services sectors would stay in place.
The agreement, he said at a Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting in Washington, would “open up the spigot a little bit for a very modest amount of relief” that could be revoked if Iran violated any part of the agreement.
“What we are suggesting, both to the Israelis, to members of Congress here, to the international community, but also to the Iranians, is ‘Let’s look, let’s test the proposition that over the next six months we can resolve this in a diplomatic fashion,’ ” the president said. “I think that is a test that is worth conducting.”
Obama said the proposal would require Iran to halt advances on its nuclear program, as well as roll back elements that get it closer what he called a “breakout capacity, where they can run for a weapon before the international community has a chance to react.” The regime would be subject to more vigorous inspections, in some cases daily, the president said.
Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers, encouraged by intense pro-Israel lobbying, are moving to stiffen sanctions against Iran, a move that Obama said would undermine the Geneva talks.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and ranking Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, said in a letter to Obama that they were worried the proposal didn’t go far enough to deter Iran.
“We must sustain economic pressure and consequent political pressure on the Iranian regime if we hope to reach a final agreement in which Iran has verifiably dismantled its nuclear program,” they wrote.
The White House said Obama told the senators the sanctions had been imposed in the first place to “change Iran’s calculus regarding its nuclear program” and that new sanctions shouldn’t be imposed during the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, known as the P5-plus 1.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the president told the senators that new sanctions would be more effective “as a robust response should Iran not accept the P-5-plus-1 proposal or should Iran fail to follow through on its commitments.”
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said some senators remained “concerned we’re giving up leverage.”
But Corker said he didn’t think “there’s any choice” that new sanctions could be imposed until after the Senate’s Thanksgiving recess, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., essentially has barred the Senate from attaching amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, the only legislation that’s moving in Congress.
He sidestepped a question of whether he thought Obama was being naive about the Iranians, saying, “All of us are concerned who we’re dealing with. We watched this same type of activity occur in North Korea, where you began to alleviate sanctions. . . . The concern is whatever you do on an interim basis becomes the new norm.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani by phone Tuesday and a Cameron spokesman said they’d agreed that “significant progress” had been made in the recent Geneva negotiations.
“The prime minister underlined the necessity of Iran comprehensively addressing the concerns of the international community about their nuclear program, including the need for greater transparency,” Cameron’s spokesman said.