A man stands amid worshipers during Friday prayers in Tehran. As Iran prepares… (Vahid Salemi, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The election of a more moderate president in Iran has sharpened the conflict between the White House and Congress over Tehran's disputed nuclear development program.
The Obama administration, which hopes to meet incoming President Hassan Rouhani's team in September to renew efforts aimed at curtailing Iran's nuclear activities, this week announced an easing of sanctions on medical supplies, farm products and humanitarian aid.
The move by the White House marked an abrupt shift after several years in which U.S. officials have imposed layer upon layer of sanctions in hopes of dissuading Tehran from pursuing a program that the West fears is aimed at developing nuclear weapons and that Iran says is solely for civilian purposes.
Meanwhile, the House appears close to passing a tough new sanctions measure aimed at further cutting Iran’s oil exports — which have already fallen 50% — and some senators would like to see a similar bill introduced in their chamber in the next few weeks.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry and other officials are urging Congress to hold off on new sanctions before expected international nuclear talks, warning of the risk of alienating new leaders who might be willing to give diplomacy a chance.
Some governments and private experts believe Iran could be a year or less away from being able to make a nuclear weapon, although the Obama administration believes the threshold is not that close.
Some lawmakers, meanwhile, are stepping up their rhetoric. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said this week he would introduce legislation seeking authorization for use of force against Iran unless it curbs its nuclear activities.
"The only way to convince Iran to halt their nuclear program is to make it clear we will take it out," Graham told the group Christians United for Israel on Tuesday.
Some lawmakers fear the White House could become bogged down in more fruitless rounds of negotiations with Iran. They suspect Rouhani is committed to forging ahead with the program even as he talks of reducing conflict with the West. The former nuclear negotiator, whose inauguration is scheduled for Aug. 4, said in the recent election campaign that he would "pursue a promise of peace and reconciliation."
One senior congressional aide said it was clear that the Obama administration "is committed to another few months of rope-a-dope negotiations with Iran and opposes any new sanctions during this calendar year. There's no way Congress waits that long to see Iran change its course — we know we just don't have that kind of time."
If the House passes its sanctions bill next week, "that would put enormous pressure on the Senate to act as well," the aide said, even though the White House is pressing the Senate's Democratic leadership not to introduce a bill. The aide asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to be quoted.
U.S. officials and private analysts believe Iran wants to return to the bargaining table. But even if it is ready to cooperate — which remains unclear — it could balk if Congress approves new sanctions.
"You could have a train wreck if a draconian new bill is passed during negotiations," said Cliff Kupchan, an Iran specialist at the Eurasia Group consulting firm and a former State Department official.
Though most of Congress has taken a hard line on Iran, a sizable minority worried about the possibility of war has also been speaking up. This month, a bipartisan group of 131 lawmakers wrote to President Obama calling Rouhani's election a "potential major opportunity" and urging him to give diplomacy a chance.
Kupchan said the list of signatories was "a more significant number than I would have expected." He attributed their emergence to a sense that time was running out for diplomacy, and a widespread desire for the administration to try something new in negotiations that have been stalemated for years.
Senior members of Obama's nuclear team from his first term are among those who have called on the administration to take a new approach.
Administration officials have said that, although they want to talk with Iran, they don't plan to put any new offer on the table. Rather, they say, the onus is on Tehran to take the first step by responding to the modest offer the United States and five other countries proposed at their most recent meeting, in April. The six countries have offered limited sanctions relief in return for Iran halting production of near-weapons-grade uranium.