It is not every day that an American president threatens to veto sanctions on Iran, and it is rarer still for him to refuse a meeting with the Israeli prime minister. Yet that’s exactly what has transpired in recent weeks in Washington, as President Barack Obama warned that he will not tolerate what he sees as congressional plans to pull the rug out from under his diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iran nuclear standoff and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans a speech in the U.S. Congress to rally opposition to Obama’s efforts.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., this week agreed to postpone voting on the legislation Obama had vowed to veto, deferring it until after a March 24 deadline for a political accord between Iran and international negotiators. Despite the delay, the dispute over whether to ratchet up sanctions pressure on Iran remains very much alive.
So why is it that the potent tool of sanctions, which brought the world together in putting pressure on Iran, has now sparked so much controversy and sowed so much division?
Sanctions on Iran were once the rare point of consensus in such highly divided bodies as the U.S. Congress or the European Union. But long gone are the days when an Iran sanctions bill would pass the Senate with a 100 to 0 vote. Efforts to slap new sanctions on Iran amid intensive nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) have exacerbated congressional polarization, prompted a face-off between the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government and brought relations between the U.S. and Israel to a new low.
The reason for this discord is that Obama and his international partners believe that there’s no strategic logic for levying more sanctions at this point and that such a move risks destroying a functional interim agreement that both sides have honored and that has set significant limits on Iran’s nuclear work. Moreover, the argument goes, new measures piled on at this point risks splitting the sanctions coalition and unraveling the P5+1’s leverage without curbing Iran’s nuclear program. And then there’s the argument that more sanctions while the parties negotiate in good faith would likely strengthen hard-liners in Tehran and vindicate their cynical views about U.S. intentions.
The questions underlying the dispute can be summarized by four S’s:
The key question for members of Congress is, What are new sanctions designed to achieve? The standard argument is that sanctions are the leverage that forced Iran to the negotiating table and escalating them therefore boosts Western leverage. But there were no nuclear-related sanctions in force when the same Iranian negotiators first came to the table from 2003 to 2005 and offered the West more attractive terms back then than they are doing now under sanctions pressure.
Nor is it clear how sanctions pressure alters Iranian behavior. It is difficult to say with any certainty whether Tehran would have gone farther in advancing its nuclear program in the absence of sanctions pressure, but there’s no question that the period of escalating sanctions has coincided with steady advances in Iran’s nuclear program.
The focus in Congress appears to be on the economic pain inflicted on Iran by coercive diplomacy, but the correlation between that pain and desired gains is far from clearly established. And those familiar with the Islamic Republic’s political culture warn that Iran’s negotiators are likely to be less inclined to show flexibility when a metaphorical gun is held to their heads, lest they face the potentially fatal accusation back home of compromising under duress.
Sabotaging the interim deal?
The Joint Plan of Action (JPOA, the interim deal reached in November 2013) has already resulted in a verifiable scaling back of Iran’s nuclear activities: It has diluted and oxidized Iran’s entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and frozen the most worrisome aspects of Tehran’s nuclear program. U.N. nuclear inspectors, on the ground around the clock, have provided monthly certification that Iran has fulfilled its commitments. Some Iranian leaders have warned that new sanctions could end the JPOA, restoring the dynamic of sanctions escalating in tandem with increases in Iran’s nuclear capability.
The JPOA states that “the U.S. administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the president and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.” Sanctions backers may argue that it wouldn’t constitute a breach if Congress passes new measures that would be triggered only if there is no deal by the new deadline of July 1, 2015, but Iran would perceived it as such. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has warned that new sanctions would “unravel” what both sides have achieved so far.
Split the coalition?
The U.S. has maintained sanctions against Iran for more than three decades, but sanctions began to bite only in recent years when they were enforced by countries that traded with Iran. The likes of Russia and China have consented to sanctions in order to give diplomacy a chance to succeed; if Washington is perceived to be acting outside the international consensus on sanctions and diplomacy, there’s little reason to expect that Beijing and Moscow — or even the European Union countries — will allow their Iran policy to be dictated by the U.S. Congress. The foreign ministers of the U.K., France and Germany, along with the EU high representative warned last week that additional pressure now could “fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions effective so far.”
Bolster Iran’s hard-liners?
New sanctions imposed by Washington at this stage will be seized upon by a substantial faction of the Iranian leadership that mistrusts Western intentions and opposes any concessions on the nuclear issue. If such measures are passed over the objections of the White House, they will exacerbate Iranian doubts in Obama’s ability to deliver on sanctions relief that would be part of a final nuclear deal. And just as backers of new sanctions measures say their goal is to boost U.S. leverage in talks with Iran, many in Tehran believe that expanding its nuclear work creates leverage for Iran. In a prospective retaliatory move, 205 members of Iran’s parliament are preparing legislation that would authorize the government to dramatically ratchet up uranium-enrichment levels in the event of new U.S. sanctions.
While some members of Congress clearly seek to scuttle diplomacy with Iran, others desire a compromise, believing that the current talks are the best — and maybe last — chance to peacefully resolve a crucial national security issue. But they would like to see a good deal.
Although Menendez has postponed his sanctions push until after the March 24 deadline, what the White House considers a bad idea in January will likely still be a bad idea in March. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., have proposed that Congress signal its intention without pre-emptively passing new sanctions. Others suggest working with the White House on legislation that could be introduced if talks fail to reach an agreement by July 1.
One lesson from the Iran sanctions issue is how the rigidity of congressional sanctions has encumbered U.S. negotiators. They’re far easier to impose than lift, which can hinder diplomacy. Given the effectiveness of financial sanctions, some have argued that Congress could make sanctions a smarter and more responsive weapon by increasingly delegating to the Treasury Department the authority to levy, ease and — most important — repeal sanctions.
But no such changes are likely be enacted in time to ease the challenges posed by combining sanctions and diplomacy with Iran.
Correction: A previous version of this article included the sentence: "The newly proposed Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, championed by Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Menendez, has no other Democratic co-sponsor." That is incorrect; the act was co-sponsored by six other Democrats.