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Warning flags went up in Israel and Congress last week, after nuclear talks with Iran ended again in failure on September 26.
On September 29, in an address to the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Iran was trying to “bamboozle its way to an agreement that will remove sanctions […] and leave it with the capacity of thousands of centrifuges,” and that would also “cement Iran's place as a threshold military nuclear power.” The Prime Minister reiterated this warning during a meeting at the White House on October 1, where he called on President Obama not to accept the deal being sought by Iran, which “would lift the tough sanctions that you worked so hard to put in place.” And on October 2 on National Public Radio, the Israeli leader stressed the difference between the U.S. and Israeli positions: The United States, he said, seeks to “prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons,” while Israel insists that any deal “prevent Iran from having the capability to make nuclear weapons in short order.”
Also on October 1, the U.S. Congress issued its own warning. In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, 354 members of the House of Representatives said that Iran’s lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency investigation of “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear work was a bad omen. According to the letter, “Iran’s willingness to fully reveal all aspects of its nuclear program is a fundamental test of Iran’s intention to uphold a comprehensive agreement” and “essential to establishing a baseline regarding the status of the Iranian nuclear program.” As if this warning were not enough, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) added another. He told reporters on September 29 that if no progress were made in the current talks, new Iran sanctions could top the agenda when Congress returns for the lame-duck session after the November elections. These stirrings of concern on Capitol Hill are ominous. While the Obama administration may not need Congress to deliver some of the sanctions relief needed for a final deal, congressional opposition would undermine any deal that is struck. And congressional action on new sanctions in advance of a deal could lead Iran to walk away from talks.
As for the talks themselves, a new dispute may have emerged. According to a September 29 report in Al Monitor, Iran insisted in the latest round of talks that U.N. sanctions be removed immediately in any overall accord. The United States and its negotiating partners, however, offered to lift quickly only the sanctions imposed unilaterally by the United States and the European Union, with U.N. restrictions to be lifted in a staged process, as Iran’s compliance is verified. In an October 2 editorial, the Washington Post warned the United States against granting Iran any additional concessions. According to the Post, “the Obama administration has a history of responding to Iran’s stonewalling by peeling away its own demands,” including a permanent ban on Iranian enrichment, the shuttering of the underground Fordow centrifuge plant, and, most recently, the dismantlement of most of Iran’s installed centrifuges.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi predicted the talks would resume within two weeks, but warned that they had not made “substantive progress” so far, and that any extension beyond the current November 24 deadline would be “useless and difficult.”