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Some In U.S. Congress Urge More Iran Pressure, Others Want Relationship 'Reset'

U.S. President Barack Obama (here addressing a joint session of Congress in 2011) is hearing a range of opinions about how to handle relations with Iran.
WASHINGTON -- Is the election of cleric Hassan Rohani as Iran’s new president an opportunity for the United States to intensify its diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over Tehran's controversial program, or a chance to tighten the screws on a new regime?

Members of Congress are arguing both sides in the wake of Rohani’s June 14 election.

Last week, almost all 46 members of the House Committee On Foreign Affairs called on the White House to intensify pressure on Iran to dismantle its nuclear program.

In a letter to President Barack Obama, they said the results of the election did nothing to suggest a reversal of the country’s pursuit of "a nuclear-weapons capacity."

"President-elect Rohani, who served as a nuclear negotiator for Iran at a time its illicit program was well under way, indicated his support for Iran's nuclear ambitions in his first postelection news conference," the lawmakers wrote, adding that there appears to be nothing "moderate" about his nuclear policies.

Among the signatories was Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican-Florida), who chairs the House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.

At a June 18 hearing, Ros-Lehtinen warned that the Iranian establishment would use Rohani’s election to undermine sanctions while marching forward with its nuclear program.

"[Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is once again playing games with the West," Ros-Lehtinen said. "In Rohani, he now has the perfect opportunity to coax the United States and the international community to ease up on sanctions while using Rohani as the fall guy should public opinion turn."

Not everyone in Congress sees it that way, however.

Time To Test The Waters?

Several members view the election of Rohani, who ran on a platform of moderation, as a potential opportunity to repair U.S.-Iran relations and secure a negotiated nuclear agreement.

The Obama administration is in its fifth year of a dual track policy toward Iran of diplomacy and sanctions. Despite imposing tough economic sanctions on the country, it has not succeeded in convincing Tehran to make its nuclear activities more transparent.

Iran denies accusations that it is secretly working to develop nuclear weapons.

In another recently drafted letter intended for Obama, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers, Charles Dent (Republican-Pennsylvania) and David Price (Democrat-North Carolina), said it would be "a mistake" not to test the waters now that a new president is in place.

The two lawmakers urged Obama to use all available diplomatic tools "to reinvigorate" nuclear talks but cautioned against doing anything that might appear to delegitimize Rohani.

They also advised that "bilateral and multilateral sanctions must be calibrated in such a way that they induce significant and verifiable concessions from Iran."

Representative Keith Ellison (Democrat-Minnesota), who supports that call, told RFE/RL that Rohani's election could present the U.S. with an opportunity "to reset" its relationship with Tehran.

"It's not a guarantee -- a guarantee and an opportunity are not the same thing," Ellison said. "But I think if there is even a chance that the United States and Iran could engage in a new relationship-building situation, then we should take it. Both are large, powerful countries and there has been a hostile rhetoric going back and forth. Why not, with the election of Mr. Rohani, see if we can reset the relations and at least begin a dialogue?"

Dent and Price are currently gathering signatures for their letter, which they have issued publicly, and around 40 lawmakers are said to have already signed it.

'Rigorous And Sustained'

Ellison and fellow lawmaker Jim McDermott (Democrat-Washington) co-authored a June 7 op-ed piece in the Washington daily "Politico" that acknowledged that renewed diplomatic engagement with Iran requires "painstaking effort, patience, and determination."

But in the absence of better options, they wrote, "rigorous, sustained diplomacy" is the United States' best hope to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and triggering a new war in the Middle East.

They also warned against imposing new sanctions on Iran before giving Rohani the chance to put his words into action.

In his first postelection press conference, Rohani pledged constructive interaction with the world and said that Iran is ready to show more transparency in its nuclear program.

Ellison -- one of two Muslims in the U.S. Congress -- said the United States must do three things to demonstrate its commitment to a diplomatic resolution with Iran.

"One, the U.S. should lift its no-contact policy; members of the State Department‘s staff are not permitted to have direct relationships with Iranian diplomatic staff," Ellison said. "And two, we should open up negotiations on all issues without preconditions. Third, I think the U.S. should appoint an envoy to lead the negotiations with Iran."

He said he’s received "a lot" of support among fellow lawmakers for his policy suggestions. "I may be one who is willing to speak up on my views, but I can assure you there’s a lot of people who share my point of view."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.