— Wire services
Pushing back hard, President Barack Obama forcefully defended the temporary agreement to freeze Iran’s disputed nuclear program Monday, declaring that the United States “cannot close the door on diplomacy.”
The president’s remarks followed skepticism of the historic accord expressed by some U.S. allies abroad as well as by members of Congress at home, including fellow Democrats. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the fiercest opponents of the six-month deal, called it a “historic mistake” and announced he would be dispatching a top envoy to Washington to try to toughen the final agreement negotiators will soon begin hammering out.
Obama, without naming names, swiped at those who have questioned the wisdom of engaging with Iran.
“Tough talk and bluster may be the easy thing to do politically, but it’s not the right thing to do for our security,” he said during an event in San Francisco.
The weekend agreement between Iran and six world powers — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany — is to temporarily halt parts of Tehran’s disputed nuclear program and allow for more intrusive international monitoring. In exchange, Iran gains some modest relief from stiff economic sanctions and a pledge from Obama that no new penalties will be levied during the six months.
Despite the fanfare surrounding the agreement, administration officials say key technical details on the inspections and sanctions relief must still be worked out before it formally takes effect. Those talks will tackle the toughest issues that have long divided Iran and the West, including whether Tehran will be allowed to enrich uranium at a low level.
The U.S. and its allies contend Iran is seeking to produce a nuclear bomb — of particular concern to Israel, which fears an attack — while Tehran insists it is merely pursuing a peaceful nuclear program for energy and medical purposes.
Iran insists it has a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and many nuclear analysts say a final deal will almost certainly leave Iran with some right to enrich. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he expects the deal to be fully implemented by the end of January.
European Union officials say their sanctions could be eased as soon as December. Those restrictions affect numerous areas including trade in petrochemicals, gold and other precious metals, financial transfers to purchase food and medicine, and the ability of third countries to use EU-based firms to insure shipments of Iranian oil again.
EU foreign affairs spokesman Michael Mann said work on amending the EU regulations was already beginning, but cautioned that changes depend on the Iranian government living up to its end of the deal.
“It’s important that both sides of the bargain are implementing this agreement, so we would coordinate timingwise also with the Iranian side,” Mann said.
The temporary accord is historic in its own right, marking the most substantial agreement between Iran and the West in more than three decades. The consequences of a permanent deal could be far more significant, lowering the prospects of a nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East and perhaps opening the door to wider relations between the U.S. and Iran, which broke off diplomatic ties after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
However, Obama and his advisers know the nuclear negotiations are rife with risk. If he has miscalculated Iran’s intentions, it will vindicate critics who say his willingness to negotiate with Tehran is naive and could inadvertently hasten the Islamic republic’s march toward a nuclear weapon. Obama also runs the risk of exacerbating tensions with key Middle Eastern allies, as well as members of Congress who want to deepen, not ease, economic penalties on Iran.
Alireza Nader, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corp., a global policy think tank, said that new sanctions from Congress could “complicate or derail the process.” He noted, however, that they are only a hypothetical at this point and that Congress recently has rebuffed Israeli and Saudi lobbying on issues related to Syria and Egypt.
The Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, was noncommittal on the subject of sanctions Monday. On NPR’s Diane Rehm Show, he said that when lawmakers return from their Thanksgiving break, “we will take a look at this to see if we need stronger sanctions … and if we need work on this, if we need stronger sanctions, I am sure we will do that.”