By Ben Wolfgang-
WASHINGTON D.C. – A preliminary deal designed to halt Iran’s nuclear program will take effect next week, the White House said Sunday, but some U.S. lawmakers and analysts have little faith that the Middle Eastern nation will comply.
In exchange for about $7 billion in economic sanctions relief, Iran on Jan. 20 will stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent — a level high enough for energy purposes but not nuclear weapons — and will begin to dilute its existing stockpile of 20 percent uranium. Iran also has pledged not to construct more centrifuges and will submit to rigorous inspection of its facilities, though it does not have to shutter any existing centrifuges.
The U.S. and five international partners agreed to those terms in November when they reached an accord with Iran, the first step in a longer-term process aimed at ensuring Iran never acquires nuclear bombs that could be used to threaten Israel or otherwise destabilize the region.
The Obama administration touted the deal as a key victory that averts potential military action by Israel or others and vindicates the notion that diplomacy, combined with tough economic sanctions, can bring real change inside Iran.
Analysts, however, say key problems with the deal remain. Chief among their concerns is that international inspectors will have access only to Iran’s declared facilities.
“In theory, they should be able to monitor the declared facilities, assuming the Iranians don’t obfuscate and cheat and play their usual games,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “But there’s a still a big blind spot with respect to their covert facilities. They’ve always had a covert nuclear infrastructure that they’ve never admitted. We don’t know if they exist or where they are. That’s a huge concern.”
Many lawmakers have blasted the deal because it allows Iran to continue enriching uranium up to 5 percent. Critics of the agreement believe Iran should have to cease all uranium enrichment and take apart its existing nuclear facilities, though Iranian leaders surely would have rejected a proposal with such demands.
“The underlying agreement does nothing to reverse Iran’s nuclear program, allows it to continue industrial-scale enrichment of uranium and fails to address critical aspects of Iran’s weaponization research,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said in a statement soon after the Jan. 20 start date was announced.
President Obama, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and others within the administration have stressed over the past several months that they were going into the deal with their eyes wide open and had little trust for the words of Iranian leaders.
They view the agreement not as the end, but the beginning of a lengthy, complex process that will be stopped immediately if Iran isn’t acting in good faith.
“We have made concrete progress. I welcome this important step forward and we will not focus on the critical work of pursuing a comprehensive resolution that addresses our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “I have no illusions how hard it will be to achieve this objective, but for the sake of our national security and the peace and security of the world, now is the time to give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”
Mr. Kerry echoed those sentiments, calling Sunday’s announcement a “critical, significant step forward toward reaching a verifiable resolution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
On Capitol Hill, a growing number of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle doubt Iran’s sincerity and believe compliance can be achieved only by tightening, not loosening, the economic sanctions regime credited by the president and Mr. Kerry for bringing Iran to the negotiating table in the first place.
Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, and Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, have put forth legislation — which now has nearly 60 co-sponsors and support among a majority of senators — that would set up a framework for more sanctions against Iran.
Those sanctions would take effect only if Iran violates the agreement, a development that Mr. Kirk and others believe is a matter of time.
“Beginning Jan. 20, the administration will give the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism billions of dollars while allowing the mullahs to keep their illicit nuclear infrastructure in place,” Mr. Kirk said in a statement. “I am worried the administration’s policies will either lead to Iranian nuclear weapons or Israeli airstrikes.”
The White House has vowed to veto any legislation calling for more sanctions against Iran, arguing that such a move would threaten the entire agreement. Indeed, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi was quoted by state media Sunday saying any new sanctions would void the deal.
“Imposing additional sanctions now will only risk derailing our efforts to resolve this issue peacefully, and I will veto any legislation enacting new sanctions during the negotiation,” Mr. Obama said, reiterating his long-standing position.
Mr. Dubowitz, however, argues that further sanctions are needed to keep the process moving forward. He points to research showing that Iran’s economy has begun to recover as international investors see the nation as a safe place to do business, with the grip of American economic sanctions easing.
If that trend continues, Iran could change course, ditch the deal and go back to pursuing a nuclear weapon at all costs, Mr. Dubowitz said.
“Congress rightly perceives that it is only sanctions pressure that has persuaded Iran to come to the negotiating table and it is only the threat of new sanctions that will persuade Iran to conclude a final deal,” he said.
• Guy Taylor contributed to this report.