Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (R) attend a meeting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany about Iran’s nuclear program on Sept. 26, 2013. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D-N.J.): Well, look, I think creating a sanctions regime that is an insurance policy and also creates leverage for us is incredibly important. I’m concerned about some elements of the text that people haven’t focused on.

For example, already in that text as it relates to what is defined as a comprehensive solution, there is some suggestion that we are going to define what a mutually agreeable enrichment program is.

So we’ve already ceded a way from U.N. Security Council resolutions that say no enrichment.

Secondly there is the ability to extend this interim agreement and to deal with the U.N. Security Council resolutions. Well, unless you’re going to deal them away, I don’t know what there is to deal. The Security Council resolutions call for ceasing enrichment.

CBS NEWS’S JOHN DICKERSON: Senator Corker, is it a red line for you? You talked about the standards of any ultimate deal. Is enrichment of any kind by Iran, is that something everybody should stay focused on? That any deal that includes that is a non-starter for you, because, of course, the Iranians say that they expect to be able to keep enriching?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R-Tenn.): Yes, so to me that’s a baseline that the U.N. Security Council has agreed to, I think, six times, certainly this administration negotiated that in 2010. So they negotiated that in 2010. So as long as they can enrich, it seems to me that we are violating the very standards that we set in place in the first place.
— exchange on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Dec. 1, 2013

This is a long exchange, but it focuses on a very important aspect of the recent interim agreement reached between Iran and world powers:  Should it require Iran to suspend uranium enrichment?

The issue is important because the agreement represents an inherent scaling-back of the administration’s original goals in the negotiations. At the same time, a permanent ban on Iran’s enrichment program has never been a stated goal of the world powers negotiating with Iran.

Yet, in a bipartisan chorus, Menendez said “we’ve already ceded a way from U.N. Security Council resolutions that say no enrichment” and Corker said “as long as they can enrich, it seems to me that we are violating the very standards that we set in place in the first place.”

The Facts

As we noted in The Fact Checker’s timeline on the negotiations with Iran, from the very start of the talks with European powers in 2003, Iran insisted on its right to enrich uranium. Even though Tehran briefly suspended enrichment in 2004-2005, an acknowledgment of this “right” has been a central goal of its negotiators.

As a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran had a point. There is a right to a peaceful program that meets the nonproliferation requirements of the treaty — but developing the program in secret is a violation of the NPT.

In the final years of the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began to acknowledge Iran’s right to nuclear power as the administration inched closer to talks with Iran, even while pressing for U.N. Security Council resolutions that called on Iran to suspend enrichment.

“All of the UNSC Chapter VII sanctions resolutions on Iran are clear — Iran must suspend its enrichment program,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who under Rice managed day-to-day diplomacy on Iran. “But, the intent was not to state that Iran could never in the future have a peaceful, civil nuclear energy program. There was never an agreement by the Perm Five countries that the no enrichment goal would last in perpetuity. That was never a U.S. objective.”

Here’s where we encounter the gap between the diplomatic goals and long-term objectives. The U.N. resolutions demand suspension of enrichment as part of the process of negotiations — while leaving open the door to an era of peaceful Iranian nuclear power. The Obama administration, at least initially, said that it would demand that Iran halt enrichment during the negotiation phase. But clearly that objective was put aside in the effort to reach an interim accord.

Testifying before the Senate Banking Committee on Oct. 6, 2009 — just days after the administration announced an earlier interim accord that later fell apart — then-Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg said in response to questions from Menendez that suspending enrichment was “the priority in our negotiations.” Steinberg added: “They need to suspend enrichment. That’s been the requirement of the Security Council, and it remains the requirement of the Security Council. So we have a number of steps beyond these preliminary steps that they have to take.”

As recently as early October, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Congress that “we do not believe there is an inherent right by anyone to enrichment” and that “Iran must meet the concerns of the international community, including the United States and all of its obligations, under the NPT and the U.N. Security Council resolutions which have suspended its enrichment.”

But although the interim accord with Iran places some limits on Iran’s enrichment capabilities — such as not adding new centrifuge machines or enriching up to 20 percent — it does not require a full suspension. Indeed, the agreement speaks of a final accord that “would involve a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.”

That language suggests enrichment may never take a pause, though of course “mutually defined” also means all seven parties, including the United States, would have to agree on the terms. Moreover, the sanctions in the U.N. resolutions do appear to hinge on whether Iran complies with international demands, such as suspending uranium enrichment.

Still, Iran was triumphant after the agreement was announced. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told Iranian television that “even the right of enrichment which is a part of our nuclear rights will continue. It is being continued today, it will continue tomorrow, and our enrichment will never stop.”

Spokesman for Menendez and Corker said they were not suggesting that the U.N. resolutions require a final agreement to include a halt on uranium enrichment, but that they were expressing a concern that this key goal as part of the negotiations was being lost in the interim accord. For his part, Corker has introduced legislation that would set full suspension of uranium enrichment as one of the “minimum conditions for any final agreement.”

The Pinocchio Test

With their comments, Menendez and Corker might have left viewers with the impression that the U.N. resolutions already require a suspension of enrichment in any final agreement. That’s not the case — though it can certainly be an ongoing demand.

The administration, for its part, appears to have set that goal aside in an effort to keep the diplomacy moving. The lawmakers are certainly within their rights to call attention to this decision, but they should be more precise in their language about what the U.N. resolutions actually require. Given that they were speaking on live television and this is a complex issue, their comments, at this point, do not yet rise to the level of a Pinocchio.

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