* Rhodes: Iran must take 'concrete steps' for sanctions
* White House seeks flexibility from Congress to pursue
* Access to frozen funds is one way to ease economic pain
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON, Oct 24 The United States is not
looking to ease sanctions on Iran "at the front end" of
negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program, a senior White
House official said on Thursday.
The Islamic republic would have to take "concrete steps" to
address its program before Washington could provide sanctions
relief, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to
President Barack Obama, said at the Reuters Washington Summit.
The United States suspects Iran may be using its civilian
nuclear program as a cover to develop atomic weapons. Iran
denies that, saying its program is solely for peaceful purposes.
Major powers last week held their first formal negotiations
with Iran on its nuclear program since the election in June of
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, opened
the door to a possible diplomatic resolution.
Obama has said he will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear
weapon and that all options are on the table for dealing with
Iran, code for the possible use of military force.
But he has made clear his preference is a negotiated
solution - one that is widely expected to gradually remove
economic sanctions that have crippled Iran's economy if Tehran
takes steps to demonstrate the peaceful intent of its program.
Sanctions imposed in 2011 by Washington and the European
Union have slashed Iran's oil exports by more than 1 million
barrels a day, depriving Tehran of billions of dollars of sales
a month and driving up inflation and unemployment.
In an hour-long interview, Rhodes said one way to offer Iran
sanctions relief would be to give it access to frozen funds. But
he said that was simply one possibility among many and that he
did not wish to suggest a preferred course had been identified.
The New York Times on Oct. 17 first reported that as a way
to ease Iran's economic pain without dismantling sanctions.
Iran's oil exports have been cut in half over the past year
as the United States has imposed increasingly tough sanctions
because of concerns about its nuclear program, which Washington
sees as a direct threat to Israel and to its Gulf Arab allies.
"We are not contemplating anything that removes those
sanctions at the front end of any negotiation or agreement,
because it's going to be important to test Iranian intentions,"
"Before we could pursue sanctions relief, we'd have to see
concrete steps by the Iranians to get at the state of their
nuclear program," he added at the summit, held at the Reuters
office in Washington.
Rhodes made clear the Obama administration wanted some
flexibility from the U.S. Congress to explore such a deal,
saying the White House would like lawmakers to consider the
progress of negotiations as they contemplate any new sanctions.
The White House hosted a meeting on Thursday of U.S. Senate
aides seeking to persuade lawmakers to hold off on a package of
tough new sanctions against Iran, a senior Senate aide said.
While Congress has sought harsher sanctions on Iran, the
White House wants time to give negotiations a chance. The talks,
which include Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the
United States, are due to resume Nov. 7-8 in Geneva.
"We continue to want to have that flexibility to pursue this
diplomatic track. There's an opening that we want to test,"
"That doesn't mean that Congress won't consider new
sanctions. It means that as they do, they should take into
account the progress we're making on diplomacy, and that we need
to have some flexibility to pursue an agreement," he added.
Rhodes held up North Korea, which has tested nuclear devices
at least twice, as a cautionary tale for other nations.
"Some people make an argument that North Korea shows that
you should just get a nuclear weapon because then you have some
type of security guarantee," he said. "I would actually make an
opposite argument. ... Would you want to be North Korea today
(with a) completely stagnant economy, completely isolated?"
"As we said with Iran, if we were able to resolve this issue
they could rejoin the community of nations and could bring
significantly more economic opportunity to their citizens," he
said. "That would be a preferable position to be in than an
isolated, impoverished, pariah state as North Korea is."
"It remains to be seen how the Iranian negotiations play
out, but I actually think North Korea is a cautionary tale for
nations that may want to pursue a nuclear weapon," he said.