Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the Iranian parliament on Nov. 27, 2013, as MPs reviewed the accord struck with world powers over Iran's controversial nuclear program. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Despite the unprecedented events in Iran since the inauguration of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as president last August, the possibility of rapprochement seems to have fallen on deaf ears with some on Capitol Hill.
Rouhani was elected by the Iranian people with the hope of rebuilding the devastated economy, restoring the country’s reputation on the world stage and reconciling with the West. Over the last six months, his administration has worked vigorously to be open to the United States and reach a deal at the talks with the P5+1 (the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany).
Despite these developments, the U.S. Congress is currently trying to pass the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, a bill introduced by Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J. If passed, the bill would erase the progress of the past several months and shutter the possibility of any attempt at progress in the future.
The Senate bill, S. 1881, pushes for staunch sanctions on Tehran and even gives the impression that an Israel-led war on Iran would go unchecked by allowing that country to attack Iran with the United States’ diplomatic, military and economic support. While the bill has not disrupted negotiations thus far, it sends a message that the U.S. government is not interested in mending ties with Iran, despite the historic phone call between President Barack Obama and his Iranian counterpart in September and the Geneva deal in November between Iran and the P5+1.
Editorials from publications such as The Atlantic, Bloomberg, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, National Journal, and The New York Times have all come out in opposition to S. 1881, warning about the potential consequences of derailing the ongoing negotiations. “Dangerously misguided forces, including leading Democrats and Republicans in Congress, are working to sabotage” the deal, The New York Times wrote.
Similarly, in a joint letter to the Senate, 66 organizations — including the pro-Israeli groups J Street and Americans for Peace Now, and the Daily Kos blog — said the new sanctions “critically endanger the possibility of a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff with Iran, increasing the likelihood of a nuclear-armed Iran and an unnecessary and costly war.”
Even before the Geneva deal, which is slated to start on Jan. 20, takes effect, various members of Congress are sticking to a tired ploy — sanctions. Once again, as John Limbert, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran, recently noted, Congress failed to change “thirty years of futility and frustration into a more productive relationship that would serve American national interests.”
Negotiating while sanctioned
Asking Iran to end its nuclear program through bills like S. 1881, while it already faces the harshest sanctions in more than three decades, is hypocritical. Iran has made it clear that the adoption of new sanctions would jeopardize the implementation of the Geneva deal.
During a recent debate on S. 1881, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., reminded her colleagues in Congress that Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, had told her personally that “the entire deal is dead” if further sanctions are implemented. In December, two-thirds of Iran’s majlis, the country’s parliament, signed on to a bill that would speed up Tehran’s nuclear program if the U.S imposes new sanctions. The Iranians already have a sense that they may not be getting a good deal. Even ordinary Iranians find it unjust to expect their country to yield its entire civilian nuclear program under the pressure of sanctions. They believe Iran’s push for a nuclear program is purely for energy and medical purposes, and involves no interest in developing a nuclear bomb. The latter has been underscored by the lack of hard evidence. More pressure under the threat of sanctions will only fuel further nationalist sentiments.
Three similar incidents have stirred hard-core nationalism in Iran’s history, contributing to the current impasse: the nationalization of oil in 1953 under Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, who was later overthrown in a coup orchestrated by American and British intelligence; the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s; and now Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. Not unlike other countries, but perhaps more so, Iran is united by nationalist rhetoric about an external threat. The latest sentiments there suggest a similarly patriotic response to new sanctions legislation.
Despite economic pressures from existing sanctions, most Iranians have faith in their government’s nuclear program. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Iranians approved of their country’s leadership developing nuclear capabilities for nonmilitary use, whereas only about 19 percent disapproved.
Like war, sanctions affect the people first and foremost, rather than governments. By sidestepping a final settlement with the P5+1 through new sanction, Congress would only hurt the lives of the Iranian people, already suffering from economic hardship and critical shortages, even more.
Food prices and real estate have soared to unprecedented levels because of the country’s double-digit inflation — 30 to 70 percent particularly since 2010, according to Iranian expert Alireza Nader. Others note that some food prices have inflated as much as 100 percent. The Iranian currency, the rial, has lost half its worth, and the country’s reserves are depleting.
A report by the Washington-based Wilson Center last February found that certain brands of medicines are not readily available in Iran, while those available were of the worst quality, with serious side effects. Patients with hemophilia and thalassemia are running out of treatment drugs. Sanctions on Iranian banks have made it harder for families to transfer money to loved ones abroad, especially university students. This has forced many students to return home before completing their studies. More than 1,000 people have lost their lives in airplane crashes since the 1990s because the planes are outdated and cannot be repaired, given sanctions on the purchase of airplane parts.
These impacts from international sanctions are pushed by the Obama administration’s “dual-track policy” — using sanctions to engage in diplomacy. But despite its purported interest in diplomacy, the administration has primarily used a “single-track policy” — one of pressure through sanctions — and eschewed attempts to build a constructive dialogue until the Geneva deal was reached.
As the latest P5+1 agreement demonstrates, both sides are interested in reaching a definitive solution. “If you want the right response, don’t speak with Iran in the language of sanctions, speak in the language of respect,” Rouhani said in his inaugural speech. The Obama administration seemed receptive over the past few months. Congress must now allow the White House to continue to seek real rapprochement.
However, if Congress continues to pile on measures like S. 1881, as Iranian scholar Farideh Farhi recently noted, the U.S. will be giving “the proverbial middle finger to the Iranian electorate.”
It is time for Congress to let diplomacy run its course. It should stop defying the White House for the next six months while the Geneva deal is implemented, before the crack in the door of engagement closes again — and quite possibly for good.