March 25, 2015

House Letter is Careful to Leave Door Open For Iran Deal

Washington, DC – In a signal of a shifting political landscape in Congress for nuclear talks with Iran, a House letter sent to the President and endorsed by the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) outlines a position closer to the Obama Administration approach rather than the hardline demands favored most prominently by Benjamin Netanyahu.

The letter was drafted and circulated for signature in early March, coinciding with a controversial Congressional address by Netanyahu as well as AIPAC’s annual conference–which also featured the Israeli Prime Minister as its keynote speaker. Unlike past AIPAC conferences, in which the group has pressed Congress for Iran sanctions as well as on foreign assistance to Israel and Israel-Palestine issues, AIPAC made Iran the sole focus of this year’s lobbying efforts. But while there were strong indications that the group planned to lobby for a House sanctions bill that would serve as a companion to a Senate sanctions bill opposed by the White House, no such legislation materialized. Instead, the House went forward with a more pragmatic approach.

Unlike recent letters and legislation in the Senate that have suggested that Congress will kill a deal or should grant itself veto powers to nullify a potential agreement, the House letter notes that it will eventually require an act of Congress to legislate the permanent lifting of nuclear-related sanctions—a position backed by the Obama Administration. 

The letter also does not adopt an unworkable, “zero-enrichment” approach that some Congressional hawks have demanded in opposition to any deal. Instead, it says that the bottom line is that a final deal “must constrain Iran’s nuclear infrastructure so that Iran has no pathway to a bomb, and that agreement must be long-lasting.” According to reports, a final deal will indeed meet such a standard. Indications are that Iran’s “break-out” capability—the amount of time it would need to develop weapons grade fissile material—would be increased to a full year under a deal up from just months, and rigorous inspections measures would ensure that the international community could detect any such violation.


Some issues presented in the letter, however, may be interpreted or construed in unhelpful ways. For instance, at a recent hearing, one of the letter’s coauthors—House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA)—suggested the letter implies that restrictions on centrifuge numbers and stockpiles must last beyond the deal’s envisioned ten to fifteen year timeline. Such a position is unachievable and could block an agreement that imposes lasting constraints on Iran’s ability to obtain a nuclear weapon. 

However, Royce referenced a section in the letter which states, “verifiable constraints on Iran’s nuclear program must last for decades.” As Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained to Royce at the hearing, many of the inspections and verification measures under a deal will be permanent, in addition to restrictions imposed by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. “What we are proposing and seeking to achieve is a series of constraints and obligations, some will end after a long period of time, others will continue longer than that, and still others will be indefinite, in perpetuity,” said Blinken. “The bottom line is that even after certain obligations are completed by Iran, it cannot become a nuclear weapons state.” 

The letter does not parse this issue, but it is clear that what is achievable at the negotiating table in the coming days and weeks will meet the bottom lines expressed in the letter. And, if the House effort is any indication of the mood in that chamber and what constitutes a bipartisan consensus, it will be difficult for those opposed to any nuclear deal with Iran to muster sufficient support in both the House and Senate to pass deal-killing legislation over the veto of the President.

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