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Video: JINSA Iran Panel on Capitol Hill

On Wednesday, January 21, JINSA's Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy and United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) co-hosted a panel event on Capitol Hill to discuss the status of Iran-P5+1 negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, and options for the United States to increase the prospects of an acceptable final deal. The event featured the co-chair of the Gemunder Center's Iran Task Force Ambassador Dennis Ross, UANI President Dr. Gary Samore, and Gemunder Center Iran Task Force members John Hannah and Dr. Ray Takeyh. The event was widely attended by staff from more than 45 Congressional offices.

The following quotes are excerpted from the full video of the event, which is available below. Click the video to watch.

What is the current status and outlook for negotiations?

"The President still harbors a strong belief in reaching an agreement. The Administration's presumption is that a 15-year deal halting Iran's nuclear program is the best option - Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei might leave during that time, and it buys much more time than the military option. There's a possibility the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) interim deal remains in place until the next Administration, even if Congress doesn't accept this as the new normal.

"The question is: what happens over the next few months to get a deal? It's pretty clear at this point that the Iranians don't feel much need to conclude an agreement, even though the P5+1 has demonstrated an awful lot of flexibility. Therefore, it's important Iran not believe that we want an agreement more than they do. [...] We can't get a long-term deal unless we raise the price to Iran of refusing it.

"If the Administration is reluctant for more sanctions, there are still other things that could be done to show the United States isn't so sensitive to Iran that we're willing to turn a blind eye to what they're doing in the Middle East. We could intercept clandestine arms shipments to Houthis in Yemen or to Hamas. It would also be smart for the Administration to engage Congress to develop an understanding of the consequences for Iran of violating a final deal. If these aren't spelled out in advance, the United States will spend valuable time debating how to respond only after violations have been detected. This would be consistent with negotiations, and would send the message to Iran that the price for cheating is clear."

-Amb. Dennis Ross

"The fundamental obstacle to a deal is that Khamenei doesn't feel compelled to accept our demands for significant long-term constraints on Iran's ability to produce fissile material. Despite the drop in oil prices, he still sees Iran's position being strengthened by events in Ukraine, Yemen and elsewhere.

"A united threat by the P5+1 to end the talks and reinvigorate sanctions could make a big difference to the potential success of negotiations. As it is, it will be difficult to produce a framework agreement unless both sides fudge all the main issues. Another option would be a partial agreement as a step toward comprehensive agreements, but it's not clear Iran would sign onto this. Though my preference is to keep renewing the JPA, we need to prepare ourselves for the collapse of talks by the June deadline - either because Congress takes the matter out of the Administration's hands by passing sanctions, or because the White House decides the oil market is unfavorable to Iran and the Iranian regime isn't willing to compromise.

"We want to be able to position ourselves to blame Iran for taking unrealistic positions in that case, and thus justify renewed pressure on Iran to change its calculations. An open fight between the White House and Congress only benefits Iran and gives them an excuse to continue doing nothing. Given the events of the last year, the Administration has come to a more realistic assessment of the likelihood of an agreement, especially given the positions Iran has taken."

-Dr. Gary Samore

"Negotiations are stalemated. Over the past decade, the United States has dealt with stalemates by offering additional concessions and moving back its redlines. This was how Iran got the P5+1 to acknowledge its 'right' to enrich, to agree to an industrialized enrichment capacity, to disregard U.N. Security Council resolutions and to likely ignore the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program. Iran has no reason to leave the talks: it gives them legitimization and legalization of their nuclear program, it overlooks their behavior in the rest of the region under the cover of détente, and it gives Iran economic benefits by relaxing sanctions.

"We've created the very impasse we fear, since Iran has no reason to ditch the JPA. The economic distress of existing sanctions doesn't hurt Khamenei, who has spent decades talking about developing an economy of resistance. The collapse of talks and the drop in oil revenues help his goal of making Iran more independent."

-Dr. Ray Takeyh

"Obama's State of the Union Address was consistent with everything he's said during the JPA: he wants the United States to freeze all serious pressure on Iran. It's an irresponsible and disturbing strategy where the White House has become the main advocate for justifying Iran walking away from the talks. This demonstrates naiveté about how to conduct international negotiations: its' now Iran and the President against Congress. The President should use the threat of Congress passing sanctions - even if he vetoes them - to go to the Iranians and say 'I'm working with you, but we don't have much time, so make some concessions.'

"I'm much more skeptical of a final deal. I think it's a bad deal. We've given up our original goal of eliminating the possibility that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon. A final deal will leave Iran as a threshold nuclear power, not even counting whatever clandestine nuclear capability it may possess. This deal won't require Iran to come clean on its weaponization efforts or ballistic missile programs, which is unique in terms of denuclearization agreements. Even if all these issues were resolved, there's still the sunset clause, after which Iran will be treated as a good-faith NPT member like the Netherlands, Japan or Brazil - all of this for a regime that sponsors terrorism and holds U.S. citizens hostage."

-John Hannah

What should the United States do if negotiations collapse?

"We need to be more public about what we've offered and Iran has turned down. We ought to begin to position ourselves to deal with Iran's Plan B if talks fail. We could limit the erosion of sanctions by showing that Iran refused a very sensible offer and turned down a sizable civil nuclear program."

-Amb. Dennis Ross

"If we're heading to collapse, we need to think about how to increase pressure on Iran. The loose oil market makes it easier for Iran's remaining oil customers to shift to other supply sources, including Saudi Arabia which is overproducing partly to undercut Iran. The United States has good political standing with many of Iran's major buyers like Japan, South Korea and India, which we can use to persuade them to further reduce their purchases of Iranian oil. We should set as a reasonable objective the elimination of Iranian supplies from the market. The big issue is Russia - managing them in the context of a breakdown in talks will be difficult. They may go ahead with an oil-for-goods deal with Iran, especially if the Ukraine situation gets worse and we put additional sanctions on Russia. We can't count on the Russians or Chinese to join us in rebuilding pressure on Iran if a deal collapses, which is unfortunate because this would be a very effective tool [...]. If talks fail, it will take years for sanctions to regain their full effect against Iran, while Iran will cautiously rebuild its nuclear program (it would fear a military strike if it reconstitutes the program too rapidly). We'd be back in the same position as we were in the years before the JPA."

-Dr. Gary Samore

"It's unclear how quickly sanctions can work. The first time we had crippling sanctions was 2012, and they worked pretty quickly by transforming the Iranian political scene with Rouhani's election (which nobody saw coming) and bringing them back to the table. We have tremendous escalation dominance to shut down Iran's economy rapidly. Also, notice that Russia hasn't walked away from the P5+1 despite U.S. sanctions. Why should we think Iran would walk away from the table because Congress passes sanctions the president can veto?"

-John Hannah

What role can Congress play in a final deal?

"I think it's unlikely Iran will accept the deal we've offered, but if they do, we'll have a debate in which Congress will play important role by holding hearings, weighing in on the acceptability of the deal, and monitoring implementation of the agreement (which is especially important given Iran's record of cheating). Even if we get long-term deal, for example 15 years, Congress would need to play an important oversight role to uphold the agreement."

-Dr. Gary Samore

How do U.S. regional allies view negotiations?

"Our Gulf Arab allies are highly suspicious of any deal, because they fear it will mean that we begin to treat Iran, not them, as a regional partner. They also fear a deal would allow Iran more resources to begin challenging them in the region. The Israeli view is that a deal would leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state. In Israel, there's never been great enthusiasm for this agreement, but neither has there been great enthusiasm for the use of force unless it would be decisive. We should be trying to find ways to address our allies' concerns, first and foremost by competing with Iran rather than ignoring its regional behavior."

-Amb. Dennis Ross

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