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Interview: U.S. Congressman On Diplomatic Momentum On Iran And Not 'Killing' Diplomacy

U.S. Congressman David Price (file photo)
U.S. Congressman David Price (Democrat-North Carolina) spoke with RFE/RL Radio Farda correspondent Fred Petrossians about diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran and U.S. sanctions against Tehran. Price was a co-author of a letter that garnered the support of 120 U.S. lawmakers in July calling on President Barack Obama to reengage Iran diplomatically over its nuclear program following the election of the Islamic republic's next president.

RFE/RL: According to an article on the Foreign Policy website, "[U.S.] President [Barack] Obama's administration is facing an unexpected difficulty in its new nuclear talks with Iran -- a sizable block of Democratic lawmakers who have made clear that they will break with the White House and fight any effort to lift current sanctions on Tehran." Do you agree that such a divide exists between the U.S. government and the U.S. Congress on Iran?

Congressman David Price: I have seen the article about this supposed divide; I think it's exaggerated. There certainly is a group of senators who are very concerned about Iran and its nuclear program and have been insistent that diplomatic concessions...on the sanctions not be made without very, very tangible signs of diplomatic progress. So there are plenty of people warning that we not be overly optimistic about the possible outcome of negotiations. But I don't think anybody has declared in advance one way or another about what would be an acceptable set of steps here that would have some calibrated relaxation of sanctions in return for very specific agreements regarding the nuclear program. I certainly think it's premature to declare that such an agreement is impossible because of the position of the senators -- I just don't think that's the case.

ALSO READ: U.S. Lawmaker Discusses Letter Urging Reengagement With Iran On Nuclear Issue

RFE/RL: In July, Congressman Charles Dent (Republican-Pennsylvania) and you wrote a letter that some called "historic" in which you asked President Obama to pursue diplomacy with Iran. And 131 congressmen signed this letter. How do you evaluate the dynamism of diplomacy between the two countries in recent months?

Price: Well, the letter was well-received by members on both sides of the political aisle, Republicans and Democrats, and in fact we got over half of the Democratic caucus to sign that letter. And this letter simply said that with the change in leadership in Iran and the professed desire for a fresh start with the West by the new President [Hassan Rohani], we should test that and see what the possibilities there might be. We shouldn't have naive expectations; we understand this might not work out. But at the same time, it would be a very serious mistake not to try, not to probe, not to see what the possibilities might be. My impression is that the president's policy -- that the diplomatic efforts that the president has undertaken -- are exactly what we had in mind. It's exactly the sort of move that we were trying to encourage. It's too early, of course, to know what it might amount to, but we feel that we helped create the kind of climate on Capitol Hill that would encourage the administration to undertake this.

Members of Congress sometimes are identified as hawks on this issue who are very pessimistic about the possibility of diplomacy and are mainly just interested in piling sanctions on top of sanctions. I think our letter indicated that although many of us have supported sanctions in the past and understand that they can be an important tool, we still do see them as a tool. The idea is not just to sanction a country or just to punish a country. The idea is to set up a situation where there will be strong incentives for diplomatic agreement -- that's the goal at the end of the day.

RFE/RL: Which concrete concessions does the U.S. Congress expect from Iran to lift the current sanctions or just one part of [them]?

Price: I don't think any of us are in the position right now to get into that level of detail about what kind of specific concessions might be sought or what kind of incentives, in terms of the calibration of sanctions, might be undertaken either. That's just a level of detail that will await the diplomats who can plan this out. I think what we are talking about ultimately is the removal of Iran's develop nuclear weapons, and we are looking for a mix of policies that would range from dismantling some of the capability to agreeing to [an] international presence that would verify the activity or the absence of activity. I think most of the solutions that have been talked about would be some mix of those kinds of measures. But exactly how they would be sequenced and how they would be calibrated in respect to sanctions and so forth, there's no way I or anyone else can get into that level of detail at this distance.

RFE/RL: Several senators are seeking an escalation of Iran sanctions after [nuclear] talks. Don't you think that new sanctions against Iran at this moment can kill all diplomatic initiatives?

Price: I would hope that is not the case. I say that having voted in the House against a new round of sanctions at exactly this moment. I was in a minority on that vote. In fact, it passed overwhelmingly the House of Representatives -- this bill imposing a new set of sanctions. The Senate has postponed consideration of this bill, but may take it up. Certainly there are some senators pushing for a new set of sanctions to be enacted. My own judgment is that the timing on that is very poor -- that it would be much preferable to hold that legislation in abeyance (eds: supend or delay debate). We have plenty of sanctions in effect right now; every indication is that they are having an effect on the Iranian government. The time may come when a new round of sanctions needs to be enacted, but my own judgment is that it would be better not to do that now, to give the diplomacy a freer reign. Having said that, though, I do not think that passage of this bill would or should wreck diplomacy or kill diplomacy -- certainly I would hope not.