Unidentified International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors are seen after disconnecting the connections between the twin cascades for 20 percent uranium production south of Tehran on Jan. 20. (AFP)
WASHINGTON — US senators questioned Obama administration officials Tuesday for striking an interim pact that allows Tehran to continue developing nuclear arms components.
The influential heads of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one Democrat and one Republican, took the Obama administration to task for an interim deal they said is bad for US interests.
The panel’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, continued walking a political tightrope of trying to support the Obama administration while striking a tough line on Iran.
Menendez cited comments made recently by Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran nuclear agency chief: “ ‘The iceberg of sanctions are melting, while our centrifuges are also still working. This is our greatest achievement.’ ”
Menendez called those comments “my greatest fear.”
The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said the recent interim deal is merely the latest example of a long-standing Iranian tactic.
“If you look at what they are doing and what they’ve done in the past is … they perfect something and then they pause. They perfect something and then they pause,” Corker said. “And so what we have right now is they’ve perfected, no question, the centrifuge capabilities. I think people would say, they want to be a nuclear state, they can be that very quickly.
“And so we have this pause where we have an interim agreement that doesn’t address all the other areas that they have the ability to perfect over this next year,” he said, “which administration officials are already saying this isn’t going to happen in six months, this is probably going to take much longer.”
Menendez, again citing the Iranian official said: “Salehi may be correct — the iceberg of sanctions may melt before we have an agreement in place. That may, in fact, be the Iranian end game. They understand that once the international community ceases banking sanctions that they will have won regardless of whether or not we have a deal.”
Wendy Sherman, the Obama administration’s top negotiator on Iran, countered by telling the committee that an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections team “verified on January 20 that, among other things, Iran stop producing near-20 percent enriched uranium, [and] disabled the configuration of the centrifuge cascades Iran has been using to produce it.”
What’s more, she said Iran “began diluting its existing stockpile of near-20 percent enriched uranium, continue[s] to convert near-20 percent enriched uranium at a rate consistent with past practices, had not installed additional centrifuges at the Natanz or Fordow facilities, had not installed new components at the Arak facility.”
Lawmakers and administration officials clashed over the true impact of economic sanctions on Iran, and whether those measures have pushed Tehran closer to giving up its pursuit of an atomic arsenal. Lawmakers are skeptical, with many voicing support for new, stricter economic sanctions; administration officials want Congress to hold off until talks with Iran play out.
Corker called the sanctions issue an unhelpful “red herring.”
“It’s sort of been a place where the administration can say, ‘Well, sanctions will end up keeping this deal from happening,’ ” he said. “Congress can keep saying, ‘Oh, we’re trying to do something about it.’ And I think it avoids the topic of you, candidly, clearly laying out to us what the end state is that you’re trying to negotiate [toward].” ■