March 7, 2014

Policy Memo: Menendez-Graham Iran Letter Will Complicate Diplomacy

NIAC has serious concerns that the Iran policy letter being circulated by Senators Menendez and Graham will have negative implications for the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The letter issues guidelines for negotiations and regarding a final deal that would violate the basic terms of a final agreement outlined in the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Notably, the letter includes implicit demands for “zero enrichment” and sets other unrealistic and unnecessary requirements for a final agreement. The letter also strongly suggests that sanctions legislation (S.1881) should be passed now, which will only contribute to the political theater on display in the Senate regarding an Iran sanctions vote.

The Menendez-Graham letter sends the wrong message at the wrong time and will invite similar pressure against an agreement from hardliners in Iran. NIAC urges members of the Senate not to sign the Menendez-Graham letter.

Senator Levin is now circulating a separate Iran policy letter for signature in the Senate, originally circulated in the House by Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. NIAC does not oppose the Levin letter. Unlike the Menendez-Graham letter, the Levin letter avoids prescribing guidelines that would complicate negotiations and violate the JPOA. While NIAC has concerns with some ambiguities in the language of the Levin letter, it upholds the principles that should guide Congressional action on Iran as urged by forty national organizations.

Zero enrichment demands

Under the JPOA, the P5+1 and Iran have agreed that a final nuclear deal will include a“mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.”

However, the Menendez-Graham letter urges Obama to revisit this issue by insisting on the “realization in a final agreement with Iran” that “Iran has no inherent right to enrichment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

  • This language can be construed as ruling out an Iranian nuclear enrichment program.
  • The U.S. and Iran have long disagreed on the issue of “right to enrichment”, but the JPOA has resolved the impasse satisfactorily. Demanding this issue be revisited yet again rejects compromise in favor of a demand that holds no value in achieving the goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon.
  • Congress should not condition acceptance of a final deal on the reintroduction of an unnecessary stumbling block.

“We also believe that any agreement with Iran that could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or nuclear enrichment programs in the region should be rejected.”

  • This language is imprecise and can be construed as ruling out an Iranian nuclear enrichment program altogether.
  • Congress should not send a message to regional actors that they can hold ultimate veto power over an Iranian nuclear deal by threatening to pursue nuclear weapons or enrichment.
  • Without a nuclear deal, Iran will have an unconstrained nuclear enrichment program that would pose a greater risk to regional proliferation and enrichment capabilities than a capped and heavily-monitored Iranian nuclear program under a final agreement.

Dismantlement demands

Congress should not tie the hands of our diplomats through unnecessary ultimatums beyond the core goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. Dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not a necessary precondition to achieve that goal. Insisting on this condition from the outset, and ruling out alternative solutions that could be brokered in negotiations, undermines chances of success.  Nevertheless, the Menendez-Graham letter states that, “We believe any agreement must dismantle Iran’s nuclear weapons program and prevent it from ever having a uranium or plutonium path to a nuclear bomb.”

  • As the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities assess that Iran does not currently have a nuclear weapons program, this language can be interpreted to broadly indict even Iran’s civilian nuclear program.
  • A final deal must provide necessary caps and transparency measures to ensure that Irandoes not achieve an undetectable breakout capability. A “path” to a bomb will always exist in theory—Iran’s nuclear know how makes this a reality—and proponents of this language may use the “path” formulation to argue that even limited and heavily-monitored civilian enrichment would pose an unacceptable risk.
  • The point of negotiations is not to eliminate a “path,” it is to ensure that any path is long and arduous, and that any attempt by Iran to go down that path will be immediately detected.

Pressing for sanctions vote

The Senate has wisely refrained from considering a new sanctions bill on Iran that the President has promised to veto. Now, there have been several attempts to tie the sanctions vote to unrelated legislation.

The six leads of the Menendez-Graham letter are all cosponsors of the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill. While some have suggested they do not support a vote at this time, this letter will be used as further ammunition to push for just that.

Unlike the Levin letter, which does indicate support for new sanctions should negotiations fall apart, the Menendez-Graham letter indicates that such sanctions should be prepared now. As a result, it will be construed as indicating support for immediately passing new sanctions authorizations: “Should negotiations fail or Iran violate the Joint Plan of Action, Congress will need to ensure that the legislative authority exists to rapidly and dramatically expand sanctions. We need to work together now to prepare for either eventuality.”

  • Imposing new sanctions now would cause the U.S. to violate the JPOA and put blame on the U.S. for the talks breaking down.
  • Despite claims that the sanctions bill, S.1881, would only trigger sanctions if Iran violates the JPOA, Republican staff have acknowledged that it would have actually already imposed sanctions had it been passed into law due to additional triggers beyond the scope of JPOA related to ballistic missile tests.
  • Threatening new sanctions through this letter will be an invitation to Iranian hardliners to apply further pressure against moderates and claim the talks are a trap and that the U.S. will never lift sanctions. 


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