Senators from both parties on Monday warned President Obama he might be walking into a trap by pursuing diplomatic relations with Iran.
In letters delivered on the eve of a possible meeting between Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, lawmakers said the president should be on guard against a time-killing ploy intended to buy time for nuclear weapons development.
“Talks cannot be merely a stalling tactic, while Iran continues to move forward with aggressive enrichment of uranium,” wrote Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
“Like you, we viewed the election of Hassan Rouhani as an indicator of discontent amongst the Iranian people and we have taken note of recent diplomatic overtures by Iran,” Menendez and Graham wrote. “However, whatever nice words we may hear from Mr. Rouhani, it is Iranian action that matters.”
Secretary of State John Kerry is already expected to meet with his Iranian counterpart on Thursday in what would be the highest-level contact between the two countries since they broke off diplomatic relations in 1980.
But it’s a meeting between Obama and Rouhani that would carry the greatest weight.
The White House has made it clear that Obama is willing to talk with Rouhani during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which begins on Tuesday.
Lawmakers are concerned that Iran’s aggressive courtship of Obama — which has involved several diplomatic overtures, including the release of political prisoners — masks the country’s true intentions.
Schumer and McCain decided to team up on the letter because they are concerned about Iran gaining a nuclear weapon, according to an aide to Schumer. The senators are convinced that the punishing U.S. sanctions are the only reason Tehran is sidling up to the negotiating table.
“These measures have had an overwhelming impact on the Iranian economy, causing a sharp drop in the value of Iran’s currency and crippling key sectors of its economy, such as energy, banking and shipping,” Schumer and McCain wrote.
“The impact of these sanctions may finally be bringing Iran to the negotiating table, and now is not the time to delay, remove or loosen these measures. Doing so now would be extremely counterproductive. Instead, we should continue to move forward with strong implementation of our sanctions unless Iran suspends its nuclear program.”
Israel is also said to be concerned at the possibility of the United States softening its pressure on Iran.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will use his address at the U.N. next Tuesday — one week after Obama’s — to argue that, when it comes to Iran, “a bad agreement is worse than no agreement at all,” according to The New York Times.
Netanyahu memorably used last year’s U.N. speech to draw what he called a “red line” under Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The White House says it has not ruled out a meeting with Rouhani. It’s possible the two leaders could exchange greetings during U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s annual luncheon at the General Assembly on Tuesday.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes left the door open to such a meeting on Monday, saying the administration was “open to engagement with the Iranian government at a variety of levels.”
Rhodes also confirmed that Kerry would be present Thursday when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif meets with the top diplomats of the six nations involved in the nuclear talks — the United States, Russia,
China, France, Great Britain and Germany.
The meeting will mark the highest-level negotiations between the United States and Iran since the two countries broke diplomatic ties in 1980, although then-Secretary of State Colin Powell shook hands with his Iranian counterpart at the U.N. General Assembly in 2001.
The high-level talks follow weeks of overtures from Rouhani, who was elected in June as a moderate alternative to his vocally anti-American and anti-Israeli predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Rouhani’s government has sent religious greetings to Iranian Jews and released 11 political prisoners ahead of this week’s U.N. General Assembly. Rouhani also insists that Iran has no intention of developing nuclear weapons.
The State Department said it welcomes the smoke signals out of Iran, but remains wary of the regime.
“We hope that the new Iranian government will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program and to cooperate fully with the IAEA in its investigation,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
This story was updated at 8:19 p.m.
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