U.S. lawmakers from both parties have expressed a willingness to give President Obama’s outreach to Iran a chance to end Tehran’s nuclear standoff with the West, but at the same time they are crafting tough new U.S. economic sanctions to further isolate the Islamic republic.
Obama’s phone call last week to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was the first contact in more than 30 years between the leaders of the two countries.
Obama wants Rouhani to prove that he’s willing to curtail some of his country’s uranium enrichment activity.
Rouhani said Wednesday in Tehran that Iran is open to discussing “details” of its nuclear activities to reach a deal with world powers. He emphasized Tehran’s position that Iran has a fundamental right to enrich uranium, a key ingredient of nuclear weapons. But his statement was a veiled hint that Iran is open to negotiate on the level of uranium enrichment as part of a deal in return for lifting of sanctions.
“Iran’s enrichment right is not negotiable, but we must enter into talks” to see what the other side proposes, he said in remarks after a meeting with his Cabinet. Rouhani said Iran had drawn up a “precise plan” to present later this month at the next round of talks with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
Lawmakers are moving forward on legislation for new sanctions, with plans to tee them up so the president can use enhanced sanctions as part of his negotiating leverage.
In July, the House approved tough new sanctions on Iran’s oil sector and other industries. The bill blacklists any business in Iran’s mining and construction sectors and commits the United States to the goal of ending all Iranian oil sales worldwide by 2015.
It also builds on U.S. penalties that went into effect last year that have cut Iran’s petroleum exports in half and left its economy in tatters. China, India and several other Asian nations continue to buy billions of dollars of Iranian oil each month, providing Tehran with much of the money it spends on its weapons and nuclear programs.
No bill would likely be finalized before November. That gives the administration at least several weeks to see whether Iran changes course under Rouhani.