- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Obama administration is poised to begin lifting sanctions on Iran — possibly as early as January — even as Tehran flouts the spirit of the nuclear agreement in a spate of rocket launches and other shenanigans.

While a ballistic missile test in October, as well as a suspected second one last month, were clear breaches of existing U.N. Security Council resolutions, they were technically “not in violation” of the nuclear accord reached between world powers and Tehran in July, according to the State Department’s top official overseeing the deal.

Steven D. Mull made that claim before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday after Secretary of State John F. Kerry confirmed in a letter to the committee that Iran is “transparently, verifiably, and fully implementing” the terms of the deal and said that “suspension of sanctions is appropriate.”

Mr. Kerry sent the letter Wednesday, just as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was making headlines by expressing hope that sanctions relief will begin in January.

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said Mr. Rouhani could get his wish as long as Iran works quickly and smoothly with the agency in the coming weeks.

“If everything goes well, it is not impossible,” Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which the U.S. and other world powers have entrusted with implementing the nuclear accord, said Wednesday in Vienna.

The sudden flurry of progress toward what diplomats describe as “implementation day” is occurring for two reasons.

First, the IAEA Board of Governors yielded Wednesday to pressure from the Obama administration and others, including Iran’s ally Russia, to close its probe into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear activities. Second, Iran’s government has become increasingly eager to get the deal implemented so sanctions relief can start before the nation’s Feb. 26 parliamentary elections.

The sanctions have badly battered Iran’s economy. Mr. Rouhani, whom some credit with spearheading Iran’s thaw in relations with the West, noted Wednesday that the long-awaited sanctions relief would deliver “one of the electoral promises of the government” to the Iranian people before the elections.

What is unclear is the extent to which the Obama administration is trying to work behind the scenes to make that happen to help more-moderate political forces defeat Iran’s anti-deal hard-liners when Iranian voters go to the polls.

Away from the politics in Iran, nearly every Republican and several Democrats in Washington opposed the nuclear agreement when it was announced in July.

The sudden momentum toward lifting sanctions sooner than anticipated — initial predictions had been that relief would occur in March or possibly later — is prompting outrage among senators on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

“One area that we all agree on is the need to be tough on any destabilizing or illegal action by Iran. With that view in mind, I think the agreement is off to a really terrible start,” Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said at his panel’s Thursday hearing on the nuclear deal.

“Failure to impose any consequences on Iran for its violations of U.N. Security Council Resolutions and other destabilizing actions sets a dangerous precedent before implementation of the nuclear agreement, when sanctions are lifted and the leverage shifts to Iran,” Mr. Corker said.

He cited a host of actions Iran has taken since July, when it, the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and the European Union reached the nuclear agreement, which was aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear programs and opening them to close IAEA inspection in exchange for sanctions relief.

In addition to carrying out ballistic missile tests in October and November, Mr. Corker said, Tehran has defied a U.N. travel ban by dispatching Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force — a military division responsible for clandestine international operations — to meet with Russian officials in Moscow.

He also pointed to Iran’s recent conviction of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, a spate of Iranian cyberattacks believed to have been carried out by Iranian operatives against the State Department, and Tehran’s export of weapons to Syria and Yemen.

“I realize not all of those issues are covered by the [nuclear] agreement, but they all relate to our relationship with Iran, and it’s very evident that Iranian officials are taking a very different track, I think, than many administration officials thought would be the case after the agreement was agreed to,” Mr. Corker said.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said the Obama administration has not stood up to its promise to “aggressively pursue Iran’s violations of international order, missile technology, weapons trafficking, human rights and its hegemonic interests” in the Middle East.

“Is the administration ready to act,” Mr. Menendez said, “so that Iran understands the consequences for violating the international order?”

Obama administration officials acknowledged that Iran’s Oct. 10 missile test was a “clear violation” of a 2010 U.N. Security Council resolution but said they were still trying to confirm a more recent reported test — on Nov. 21.

Mr. Mull, a career foreign service officer whose formal State Department title is lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation, said he and other officials are “now actively considering the appropriate consequences to that launch in October.”

The Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking Democrat, meanwhile, pressed for an explanation about how the administration could “misjudge so badly the date” by which sanctions relief would begin for Iran.

Throughout the congressional review of the nuclear deal, said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, witnesses for the administration regularly guessed it would be springtime before Iran could comply with the terms required for that relief to begin.

“Now we understand it is likely that Iran will be in compliance and entitled to sanctions relief as early as January,” he said. “Obviously, we want them to comply — don’t get me wrong.

“But why did we misjudge so badly the date that is likely for compliance?”

Mr. Mull agreed that some administration officials speculated it would take until spring but that the pacing of compliance was in Iran’s hands.

He emphasized that the agreement requires Iran to take steps to dismantle its nuclear program correctly, not quickly. While he did not speculate on exactly when that would be, he also did not rebut Mr. Cardin’s claim that it could be next month.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in the U.S. can predict when that will be. The responsibility for that lies with Iran as verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

In Mr. Kerry’s letter to Congress, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, the secretary stated that Iran had not engaged in any covert or other activities that could significantly advance its nuclear weapons program.

The letter was written as a certification form that the administration is required to provide to Congress as an assessment of the ongoing status of the nuclear deal every 90 days under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015.

Mr. Mull said Iran has begun dismantling its uranium enrichment system by removing thousands of centrifuges and transferring them into a storage facility that will be monitored by international nuclear inspectors.

“It has already removed more than 5,000 of its machines and is likely to move quickly to remove the rest in the coming days,” he said, adding that Iran is reducing its stockpile of various forms of enriched uranium to no more than 660 pounds of material enriched up to 3.67 percent.

“It will accomplish this primarily by shipping a significant amount of such material outside Iran, while also diluting the remaining excess to the level of natural uranium or below,” Mr. Mull said. “Commercial contracts are in place for Iran to ship its enriched uranium stockpiles to Russia. We expect that this material could leave Iran in the coming weeks.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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