Washington, DC – “If the President is able to negotiate an agreement with Iran, he would need to come back to the Congress because some of those sanctions can’t be lifted without Congress agreeing,” said Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat who served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs during the Bush Administration.
Speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by Partnership for a Secure America, Burns stressed that the Constitution gives the President a great deal of authority to decide and execute foreign policy, but urged that the White House and Congress work together towards a final nuclear deal. “We would want to see . . . an integration between the Executive and Legislative branches on this very important issue. This is not a trivial matter.”
Burns was joined by Robert Einhorn, who played a leading role in Iran negotiations as the State Department’s Special Advisor for Nonproliferation and Arms Control during President Obama’s first term in office. Einhorn criticized a Senate sanctions bill that he said contained “poison pills” for a final deal. He noted that the bill “specified in great detail what the outcome of negotiations had to be.” In this context, he said, if the Iranian government deemed the Congressionally-mandated outcome unacceptable, it would have little incentive to negotiate. Some flexibility is essential to give diplomacy a chance, he said.
Einhorn’s comments came just as the Senate legislation, S.1881, was all but halted after its top sponsor – Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) – and the major organization lobbying for it – the American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) – indicated they would not seek a vote. Nonetheless, speculation remains that Congress could consider a resolution as soon as March, during AIPAC’s annual Washington conference, that establishes Congressional demands for what a final nuclear deal must look like.
While Burns and Einhorn were critical of recent Congressional efforts to impose sanctions or set terms for a final deal, they were also tough on the level of cooperation that they expect from Iran. Burns stressed that, as the talks move forward, “the pressure is going to be on Iran,” because negotiators will eventually have to agree “to a significant rollback of their current civil nuclear program.” According to Burns, the U.S. cannot accept the idea of 19,000 centrifuges spinning. It will need to see significant changes regarding the Arak heavy water reactor in order to ensure that the Iranians will not use the facility to produce plutonium.
Einhorn recommended the P5+1 to focus on the practical needs of a civilian program to eliminate the threat that it can pose to the world. One solution, he said, would be to convert the Arak facility to a light water research reactor, which would be more appropriate to produce medical isotopes. Iran has indicated that it may be amenable to such a step. It is unclear if Congress, however, would deem such a step as acceptable.