Senate letters, one urging Iran engagement, the other pressure, vie for signatures

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Competing letters on Iran are circulating in the U.S. Senate, one urging President Obama to increase pressure on Tehran and the other urging him to engage with the leaders of the Islamic Republic.

Pro-Israel backing is split between each of the letters seeking senators’ signatures this week. Americans for Peace Now and J Street back the letter urging Obama to engage with an offer to talk by Iran’s president-elect. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee backing the letter that urges intensified sanctions to force Iran to suspend its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“We believe the U.S. should reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to determine whether Dr. Rohani is truly willing to engage the international community,” says the letter initiated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Hassan Rohani, who will be inaugurated as Iran’s president this weekend, rejects calls to reduce Iran’s uranium enrichment but also has said that he is ready to make Iran’s nuclear program more transparent.

Diplomacy “is the only way to reach a verifiable agreement, including limits on Iran’s enrichment and other sensitive nuclear activities and greater cooperation with the [International Atomic Energy Agency], that ensures that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons,” says the letter authored by Feinstein, who chairs the Senate’s Intelligence Committee.

The letter demanding greater pressure was initiated by six senators, led by the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), and including the chairman of Middle East subcommittee, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

“We believe there are four strategic elements necessary to achieve resolution of this issue,” says the letter. “An explicit and continuing message that we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, a sincere demonstration of openness to negotiations, the maintenance and toughening of sanctions, and a convincing threat of the use of force that Iran will believe. We must be prepared to act, and Iran must see that we are prepared.”

The Menendez letter had garnered signatures from 69 of the Senate’s 100 senators by Friday morning.

The letters come on the heels of an overwhelming 400-20 vote in the U.S. House of Representatives this week to intensify sanctions. Last week, a bipartisan slate of 131 House members sent a letter urging Obama to take up Rohani on his offer to talk.

There is some thematic overlap between the Feinstein and Menendez letters: Feinstein’s says sanctions should be sustained until Iran takes “proportionate steps” to show that it is not manufacturing weapons. The Menendez letter notes Rohani’s expressed willingness to make the nuclear program more transparent.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he does not take seriously Rohani’s offer, calling him a “sheep in wolf’s clothing.”

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