The Obama administration is on the defensive days before Iran nuclear negotiations are scheduled to resume in Geneva, as critics in Israel and in the U.S. Congress say Iran would concede too little and gain too much from an easing of international economic sanctions.
Administration officials say they're close to a first-step agreement that would constrain Iran's nuclear activities while letting the Islamic Republic continue to produce limited amounts of low-enriched uranium under international monitoring for civilian power reactors. The talks between Iran and six world powers are scheduled to reconvene Nov. 20.
The U.S. officials have declined to disclose their estimates of the value of the proposed sanctions relief or describe the restrictions Iran would accept while negotiations continue on a comprehensive deal. That's enabled opponents of the deal to frame the debate with their own numbers and worst-case predictions of how fast Iran could create a nuclear weapon.
Some U.S. lawmakers and an Israeli cabinet member have said Iran would reap at least $20 billion in benefits from a partial easing of sanctions. Such figures are "inaccurate, exaggerated and not based in reality," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last week.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has criticized the proposed agreement as "the deal of a century" for Iran, said over the weekend that any easing "would endanger the whole sanctions regime that took years to make."
"You're going to get investors, companies and countries scrambling one after the other to try to get deals with Iran, because economies and prices work on future expectations," Netanyahu said in an interview aired yesterday on CNN's "State of the Union" program.
The proposal on the table in Geneva would cap the quality and quantity of Iran's enriched uranium and the centrifuges used to make it, and also pause the construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak, according to diplomats informed about the negotiations. If the reactor becomes operational, Iran could in time extract plutonium from it as an alternative to using highly-enriched uranium if it were to make nuclear weapons.
In return, the U.S. would ease sanctions on petrochemicals, gold, autos and civilian aircraft parts, and Iran would be permitted access to about $3 billion in frozen assets, according to the diplomats, who asked not to be named discussing the closed-door talks.
The Obama administration says core sanctions on oil and banking would remain in place. The oil sanctions alone are costing Iran as much as $5 billion a month in lost revenue, according to U.S. Treasury statistics.
Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz contends that Iran would gain $20 billion or more in sanctions relief under the proposed deal. He initially was quoted saying Iran would reap $20 billion to $40 billion. In a later interview with Israel Radio, he said the benefit would be $20 billion.
Steinitz said the U.S. administration estimates the value of sanctions relief at $7 billion to $8 billion over the six months of a first-step deal, a number he said he doubled to produce a full-year figure and then rounded up because "the jump to $20 billion isn't that big."
American advocates of tougher sanctions, such as Republican Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, also have said Iran would gain as much as $20 billion from the pending deal without giving up enough in exchange. Lawmakers have cited figures calculated by Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions advocate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.