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Obama sees Beirut terrorist attack as common ground with Iran in nuclear talks

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BLOODSHED: Lebanese men carry the body of a victim of explosions that struck near the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, in a stronghold of Hezbollah. (Associated Press)

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.

An al Qaeda-linked group based in Lebanon claimed responsibility for explosions that killed at least 23 people and wounded more than 140.

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.

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About the Author

Guy Taylor

Guy Taylor is the National Security Team Leader at The Washington Times, overseeing the paper’s State Department, Pentagon and intelligence community coverage. He’s also a frequent guest on The McLaughlin Group and C-SPAN.

His series on political, economic and security developments in Mexico won a 2012 Virginia Press Association award.

Prior to rejoining The Times in 2011, his work was ...

Ben Wolfgang

Ben Wolfgang covers the White House for The Washington Times.

Before joining the Times in March 2011, Ben spent four years as a political reporter at the Republican-Herald in Pottsville, Pa.

He can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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