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Analysis: Senators’ Letter to Tehran Could Impact Nuclear Talks

  • Al Pessin

FILE - Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is seen during a visit to the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran, Jan. 13, 2015.

FILE - Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is seen during a visit to the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran, Jan. 13, 2015.

An open letter sent by 47 U.S. Republican senators to Tehran about the ongoing negotiations on Iran's nuclear program could impact the talks, experts say.

“It very much muddies the waters,” said James Boys of King’s College London, author of a new book on the Clinton administration’s foreign policy. “It makes it much more difficult, I think, for Iran to know that they’re dealing with an honest broker here. In any negotiations you want to make sure that any deal that you strike will be honored by the opposite party.”

In comments quoted Thursday by Iran’s Mehr news agency, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he is “worried” about the letter “because the other side is known for opacity, deceit and backstabbing.”

Khamenei is quoted as accusing the United States of “tricks and deceptions,” and saying that every time an agreement is close “the tone of the other side, specifically the Americans, becomes harsher, coarser and tougher.”

But the letter’s addressee, Iranian Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Mohammed Javad Zarif, made a point of indicating he is not concerned.

In remarks published by the Iranian government, he said the letter “has no legal value and is mostly a propaganda ploy.” Zarif also chided the senators for what he sees as their lack of understanding of both international and U.S. laws.

Most importantly, he said international law requires that any future U.S. president will be bound by any agreement President Barack Obama makes.

Zarif also expressed the concern mentioned by Boys and reflected in Khamenei’s comments.

“It is imperative for our counterparts to prove … good faith and political will in order to make an agreement possible,” he said.

Zarif’s response indicates that, as politicians, he and other Iranian leaders understand the current bitter political divide in the United States between Democrats, including Obama, and Republicans, including all of the senators who signed the letter.

Thomas “Tom” Cotton, Junior U.S. Senator, R-AK

  • Age 37, youngest member of the Senate
  • Formerly U.S. House of Representatives, Arkansas, 4th District, 2013-2015
  • Graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, Harvard Law School (2002)
  • Served as captain in the U.S. Army; tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Authored letter to Iran leaders, organized supporting signatures of 47 Republican Senators

“At the leadership level at which the talks are taking place, this does not appear to have a big effect,” said Dana Stuster of the National Security Network think tank in Washington, which closely follows the Iran talks. “Where it might have an effect is encouraging hardliners in Iran to more actively oppose the deal.”

In the U.S., Republicans in the House of Representatives invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak against an Iran deal last week at a joint meeting of Congress.

Analyst Boys said the letter could “undermine” moderate elements in Iran, like Zarif and his boss President Hassan Rouhani, who are fighting hardliners for influence with the Supreme Leader, who will make the final decision on a nuclear agreement.

"This letter, I think, will be used very much as ammunition by more conservative elements who are very much opposed to any deal at all going forward,” Boys said.

Specter of divisions

The U.N. Security Council’s designated negotiating team for the Iran talks brings together nations with diverse interests. It has the United States and some of its key European allies, Britain, France and Germany. But the team also includes Russia, which is under Western economic sanctions for its involvement in Ukraine, and China, which is far away and has its own foreign policy priorities.

The group is known as the P5+1, for the Security Council’s permanent five members, plus Germany. So far, the team has remained united in the talks, what Boys calls “one of the most remarkable elements of this whole process.”

And while he does not expect a rapid disintegration of the team, Boys warns the letter “may well make the P5+1 sit up and take notice, and perhaps wonder whether an agreement can be struck and kept, this side of a [U.S.] presidential election.”

Experts are concerned that without a general agreement by the end-of-March deadline, and a full agreement by the end of June, nations around the world will lose faith in the process.

Sanctions could begin to unravel, and in a worst case, Iran could cancel the interim agreement reached more than a year ago, kick out international inspectors and move toward building a nuclear bomb — something its leaders say they do not want to do, analysts say.

That would turn the clock back two years, to a time when there was no diplomatic pathway to convincing Iran to open its nuclear program in a way that would prove to the world it is purely peaceful, as Iran claims, they say.

Political calculus

In that scenario, the choices for the international community would revert to either accepting a nuclear-armed Iran or trying to prevent that through military action, what is known as the ‘Iranian Bomb or Bomb Iran’ scenario.

So while the senators’ letter is causing some concern, the negotiators from the six nations and Iran have plenty of incentives to forge ahead.

In practical terms, the U.S. Congress does not have any near term role to play regarding an agreement with Iran. Experts do not expect the accord to be a formal treaty, so it won’t require approval by the Senate. And the president has the power to take the expected initial steps of any agreement, including the lifting of some U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.

A key calculation by people involved in the talks is that by the time congressional action is needed to remove remaining sanctions, likely several years from now, there will be no reason to oppose the move if international inspectors verify Iran is in full compliance and is not moving toward building a nuclear weapon.

That is a gamble, particularly with political vitriol in Washington at its current level.

“I worry that Iranian leaders will see this as evidence that Congress will not adhere to this political calculus,” said analyst Stuster. “But the political calculus is so strong, I hope that they can see through it.”

Stuster said the international economic sanctions that helped bring Iran to the negotiating table were successful precisely because they are nearly global.

If other nations begin to dismantle their sanctions under an agreement “that would mitigate the effect that Congress could have in acting as a spoiler to a nuclear deal,” he said.

Analysts are not surprised the Iran talks are facing heightened criticism as the deadline approaches. And they acknowledge there are no guarantees an agreement will be reached, or be successful. Still, most experts see the talks as a better alternative than renewed confrontation.

“There is a chance that we get an agreement and it doesn’t work,” Stuster said. “But it certainly beats the alternative.”