The next few months will answer a fundamental question about Iran’s nuclear program: Are the Iranians serious about eliminating, in Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s words, “even the perception that Iran may develop nuclear weapons” in exchange for sanctions relief. Achieving that objective in the upcoming negotiation is hard enough. We should not derail it from the start by prescribing its terms.
But that essentially would be the effect of the Iranian sanctions bill being considered in the Senate. It would not simply sanction Iran if it fails to comply with its commitments; it would apply new sanctions if Iran does not accept a nuclear deal that meets conditions it requires. That essentially presents Iran with this choice: Accept our terms or be sanctioned. Negotiations are unlikely to begin under those circumstances.
Sanctions against Iran over the past three years have significantly advanced U.S. objectives. Generally, they have been driven by the Congress, sometimes against the wishes of the Obama administration, which has nevertheless skillfully used them to build one of the broadest international pressure campaigns in history. They are the main reason the Iranian government came to the table. The sanctions worked as intended—seriously squeezing the Iranian economy and creating economic hardship and isolation for the Iranian people. That, together with their growing resentment of the stifling control of a doctrinaire government, drove the Iranian people to express their hope for change. They elected Rouhani, a candidate certainly not out of the mainstream of the clerical establishment, but one who promised to reverse the slide of the Iranian economy and improve the daily lives of the Iranian people. The only way he can do that, he acknowledged, is by engaging the West on Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions.
The six-month interim deal reached between the West and Iran in November, and the implementing agreement concluded last weekend, does not, and was not intended to, resolve the Iranian nuclear threat. But it achieves what prior negotiations failed to do: preventing Iran from talking while it continued to build up its stockpile of enriched uranium. And it gives the United States transparency into Iran’s nuclear program that it has never had before—regular, often daily, inspections of key installations.
Now, we need to put to the test President Rouhani’s assertion that even the perception that Iran might develop nuclear weapons would be “detrimental to our security and national interest.” The United States need to do that without illusions. Iran did not have a heart transplant with Rouhani’s election. The dominant figure in Iran is not Rouhani but the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. There is no evidence that Iran has changed its strategic objectives in the region, its enmity toward Israel, its assistance to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups, its support for the Syrian regime’s brutal campaign against its people or its support for elements that seek to undermine America’s friends in the region. Even if we achieve a strong nuclear agreement, we will still have to counter Iranian actions that are antithetical to our interests.
But if we can take the nuclear threat off the table, we can reduce Iran’s coercive power and prevent a deadly nuclear arms race in the region. If Rouhani has the intention, and the capacity, to do that with a strong and verifiable agreement in order to save the Iranian economy from further deterioration, it is better than the alternatives: a nuclear Iran or a military solution. We do not know whether he can or not, but it certainly is worth a period of intensive negotiations to find out.
These automatic sanctions proposals could undermine that effort. First, the elements in Tehran who oppose these talks will assert that Iran cannot negotiate with a “gun to its head.” It is unlikely that Foreign Minister Javad Zarif would engage under these circumstances. Second, the theory behind these proposals—that tough economic sanctions worked, and therefore more will work better—is wrong, because the sanctions’ effectiveness depends upon broad international participation. Countries like China, India, Japan and South Korea have been reluctant participants, restricting their purchases of Iranian oil only under strong U.S. pressure. There is a serious risk that they will characterize a fresh sanctions threat by the United States, before negotiations have even begun, as unreasonable and use it as a pretext for slithering out of the sanctions, opening big holes that undermine their effectiveness. The best way to hold the international sanctions regime together and continue strong pressure on Iran is to negotiate in good faith with the Iranians to prevent a nuclear weapons program. If the Iranians are unwilling to meet this objective, we will be in a stronger position to rally the international community to ratchet up the pressure on them.
Congress has played a key role in making America’s Iran policy over a sustained period of time. It has kept a bright light on Iran’s nuclear program and given President Obama the tools that brought the Iranians to the table for a serious—although as yet uncertain—negotiation. It is important for the administration to know what Congress’s expectations are, and many want to hold the administration’s feet to the fire. But that can be done without the risk of upending the negotiations before they start. Does anyone doubt that Congress can pass sanctions quickly if Iran cheats or the negotiations fail? And if an agreement is reached that Congress considers inadequate, there will be a national debate, as there should be on a matter of this importance.
But first, let’s give these talks time. Before we undertake a protracted period of increased tension and perhaps confrontation with Iran, which may be necessary, the American people and the international community need to know that we made our best effort to achieve our objectives in a good-faith negotiation. Loading that negotiation down from the outset will not provide that test.
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