The Obama administration moved swiftly Tuesday to seize on the horrific suicide bombing of the Iranian Embassy in Beirut as an example of how Washington and Tehran share common ground as terrorist targets — a key message for a White House that has scrambled to keep alive hopes for a breakthrough in talks over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
“The United States knows too well the cost of terrorism directed at our own diplomats around the world, and our hearts go out to the Iranian people after this violent and unjustifiable attack claimed the life of at least one of their diplomats,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement.
The attack in Beirut may add either a layer of complexity or help along the high-stakes international talks over Iran’s nuclear program slated to reopen in Geneva on Wednesday.
“I think from the side of the West, this was a way to show consistency and sympathy to the Iranians when they’ve been targeted by al Qaeda,” said Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council. “It’s a way for the U.S. to repeat their claim or assertion that the U.S. is against terrorism, no matter who it targets.”
The Obama administration has spent recent days struggling to overcome congressional resistance to a plan that would allow for a selective easing of some U.S. economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for explicit assurances that Tehran will scale back its nuclear program and open it to intense international inspections.
The White House has locked horns this week with several influential members of Congress who say the administration is moving too hastily into a bad nuclear deal and who have threatened more sanctions against the Islamic republic.
President Obama pleaded Tuesday for lawmakers to embrace a six-month trial, during which the U.S. and its allies can determine whether Iranian leaders are serious about rolling back their nuclear program or whether they are using their overtures as a smoke screen.
The president asked a group of top senators Tuesday morning to hold off on any more sanctions on Iran in the hopes that a permanent, verifiable and diplomatic solution might emerge by spring.
“The essence of the deal would be they would halt advances on their nuclear program. They would roll back some elements that get them closer [to having a nuclear bomb]. They would subject themselves to more vigorous inspections even than the ones that are currently there, in some cases daily inspections,” Mr. Obama said later as he spoke to CEOs at a Washington gathering hosted by The Wall Street Journal.
“In return, what we would do would be to open up the spigot a little bit for a very modest amount of relief that is entirely subject to reinstatement if in fact they violated any part of this early agreement, and it would purchase a period of time — let’s say six months,” the president said.
Mr. Obama said the harshest of economic sanctions — those that affect Iranian oil revenue, banking and financial services — would remain unchanged during the trial period and that any tentative sanctions relief could be reversed at a moment’s notice if Iran violates any agreement.
Negotiators from Iran and delegates from the U.S., Britain, Russia, China, France and Germany are expected to delve into the mechanics of such an arrangement this week in Geneva.
The core of any long-term deal is likely to depend on whether Iranian negotiators are willing to agree in writing to halt or substantially limit uranium enrichment activities. A round of talks earlier this month ended in apparent disagreements over the enrichment question.
Iran had argued that as a member of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — a pact Israel hasn’t signed — it should make no concessions until other nations explicitly allow it to enrich some uranium for electricity and other civilian purposes, including for medical research programs.
But Iranian leaders dropped the demand Tuesday. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the semi-official ISNA news agency that while enrichment itself was a “nonnegotiable” right, Tehran does not see any “necessity for its recognition as a right.”
Israel has spent recent days ramping up pressure on Washington to accept nothing less than a total halt in enrichment before any sanctions on the country are lifted, particularly in light of fears that Iran simply may be using the negotiations to stall for time while continuing to secretly enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb.
Such fears fuel deep skepticism about the negotiations among some in Washington. Lawmakers from both parties worry that the Obama administration may be ceding leverage to Iran without taking firm action. Hours after the president’s meeting with congressional leaders, a bipartisan group of senators reiterated some of those concerns.
“While the interim agreement may suggest that Iran could be willing temporarily to slow its pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, it could also allow Iran to continue making some progress toward that end under the cover of negotiations. This does not give us confidence that Iran is prepared to abandon unambiguously its nuclear weapons pursuit altogether, as it must,” reads a part of the letter, signed by Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania.
The Republican signatories were Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona and Susan M. Collins of Maine.
Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican and his party’s ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emerged from Tuesday’s meeting with the president saying some lawmakers remain “unsatisfied” with the White House’s approach.
He said “nobody knows” whether the two sides will be able to reach an agreement in Geneva this week — something the president reiterated during his remarks later in the day.
Some analysts said that the Obama administration appeared to be seizing on the terrorist attack in Beirut as an opportunity to send a message to Iran that whether or not a breakthrough is achieved in the nuclear talks, Washington and Tehran could work together on other fronts.
Mr. Kerry’s condolence note “reinforces a message that President Obama has tried to convey for five years now, that the U.S. has a problem with the Iranian nuclear program, a problem with some Iranian policies, but not with Iran per se, and that when these problems are resolved, other issues can be addressed more collaboratively,” Mr. Parsi said.
“I would resist the narrative that both Iran and the U.S. face a common threat, because Iran certainly hasn’t treated it like a common threat,” said James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation.
Despite the sectarian difference between al Qaeda — a Sunni organization — and Iran’s overwhelmingly Shiite society, Mr. Phillips said, Iran supported al Qaeda activities stemming back to the early 1990s when “al Qaeda members were trained in Iran according to the 9/11 report.”
Either way, most analysts agree that the attack in Beirut may be an indication that al Qaeda-linked groups fighting in Syria against the regime of Bashar Assad are having rising tensions against Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite militant organization with close ties to both Iran and Syria.
The midmorning explosions outside the Iranian Embassy hit the neighborhood of Janah, a Hezbollah stronghold and home to several embassies and upscale apartments, leaving bodies and pools of blood on the glass-strewn street amid burning cars.
Senior Hezbollah official Mahmoud Komati said at the scene that the attack was a direct result of the “successive defeats suffered by [extremists] in Syria.” He described the blasts as a “message of blood and death” to Iran and Hezbollah for standing by Syria, vowing that they would not alter their position.
A Lebanese al Qaeda-linked group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility, saying attacks would continue until Hezbollah withdraws its forces from Syria.
The authenticity of the claim could not be independently verified. It was posted on a militant website and on the Twitter account of Sirajuddin Zurayqat, a spokesman of the Azzam Brigades.
“It was a double martyrdom operation by two Sunni heroes from Lebanon,” he wrote.
The group is active in southern Lebanon and has issued claims in the past for rocket attacks into northern Israel. It also has claimed a 2010 bombing of a Japanese oil tanker in the Persian Gulf and a 2005 rocket attack that narrowly missed a U.S. amphibious assault ship docked at Jordan’s Aqaba Red Sea resort.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.