WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. officials said Tuesday that an interim deal with Iran that promises to curb its nuclear program in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions 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 developing a nuclear weapon.
Both Sherman and Cohen sought to reassure members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — some of whom are eager to restore sanctions against Iran — 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."
"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."
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.
Iran, which has a well-educated population and holds some of the world's largest oil and gas reserves, is desperate to revive its economy after years of international isolation.
Iranian businessmen welcomed more than 100 potential investors from France who arrived in Iran on Monday in hopes of reviving economic ties amid the easing of some sanctions. They followed similar visits by the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, South Korea and other countries ready to explore new trade opportunities. Automobile makers also are eyeing Iran's workforce.
The relief from sanctions should give Iran another $7 billion. The more Iran benefits, the less incentive it will have to negotiate a final agreement, Mark Dubowitz, director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said, adding that he fears both Tehran and Washington will keep extending the six-month interim deal.
He said that despite the administration's best efforts to enforce the existing sanctions regime, "Greed drives markets."
"And if greed overrides fear, every company armed with a battery of lawyers or an army of lawyers is going to find a way back into Iran, despite the best assurances of David Cohen and others."
Sherman insisted that the sanctions relief was "temporary, quite limited and quite targeted." She said most of the business delegations that are going to Iran are just trying to get themselves in line in case a final deal 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," she said.
While Sherman said that the U.S. does not want to see international businessmen clamoring to go into Iran, it does put pressure on the Iranian government to complete a deal to allow business to flourish in the country.
The Obama administration is trying to keep Congress from imposing 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.