We have placed our incredibly effective international sanctions regime on the line without clearly defining the parameters of what we expect in a final agreement. —Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J
WASHINGTON — U.S. officials said Tuesday that an interim deal with Iran that curbs its nuclear program in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions that have crippled its economy does not mean that Tehran is open for business.
Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financing, acknowledged that European businesses are rushing to Iran to prepare for the possibility that all sanctions will be lifted if a comprehensive agreement is reached preventing Iran from ever developing a nuclear weapon.
Iran agreed in November to slow its uranium enrichment program to a level that is far below what would be necessary to make a nuclear bomb. It also agreed to giving international inspectors more access to its facilities as a way to give world leaders confidence that it is not trying to build weapons in secret.
In exchange, the U.S. and five other nations — Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China — agreed to ease an estimated $7 billion worth of international sanctions that have had a detrimental effect on Iran's economy. The interim agreement is to last for six months while negotiators try to broker a final settlement.
Both Sherman and Cohen sought to reassure members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. will continue to enforce existing sanctions even as some are being eased and that those who violate them will be targeted.
"As part of this effort, over the last six weeks I have traveled to the U.K., Germany, Italy, Austria, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates carrying this message: 'Iran is not open for business,'" Cohen told skeptical lawmakers. "In all of these engagements we have made clear that we will continue to respond to Iran's efforts to evade our sanctions wherever they may occur. ... We are poised to deploy our tools against anyone, anywhere, who violates our sanctions, just as we have always done."
Iran is desperate to revive its economy after years of international isolation and is happy to see that French business executives are flying to Iran, German and Dutch entrepreneurs are taking courses on how to close a deal in Tehran and automobile makers are eyeing Iran's workforce. The country has a well-educated population and holds some of the world's largest oil and gas reserves.
Sherman echoed Cohen's remarks.
"Tehran is not open for business because our sanctions relief is quite temporary, quite limited and quite targeted," she said, adding that most of the business delegations are going to Iran to get themselves in line in case a comprehensive agreement is reached. "We have told them all that they are putting their reputations, themselves and their business enterprises at risk if they jump the gun."
Both are trying to allay the concerns of lawmakers eager to slap more sanctions on Iran. Some lawmakers have agreed to hold off imposing any more sanctions on Iran to give diplomacy a chance to yield a comprehensive agreement with Tehran. However, 59 Republicans and Democrats back legislation to levy a new round of penalties on Iran if it violates the six-month interim deal or lets it expire without signing a comprehensive agreement.
"Any deal the administration reaches with Iran must be verifiable, effective, and prevent Iran from ever developing even one nuclear weapon," said Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the committee.
"In my view, based on the parameters described in the joint plan of action, and Iranian comments in the days that have followed, I am very concerned about Iran's willingness to reach such an agreement," said Menendez, D-N.J. "We have placed our incredibly effective international sanctions regime on the line without clearly defining the parameters of what we expect in a final agreement."