On January 12, the United States and its partners in the P5+1—the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany—announced an agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran on implementation of the Joint Plan of Action, or JPA, signed in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 24. The JPA, which will take effect on Monday, will give Iran limited and reversible sanctions relief if the country halts key aspects of its nuclear work and submits its program to broader and more intrusive inspections.
Over the next six months, the P5+1 and Iran will attempt to negotiate a comprehensive deal addressing all of the international community’s concerns about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program. The negotiations are sure to be complex and difficult. Some in Congress, however, have pressed forward with efforts to pass new sanctions measures, despite the fact that such measures would violate both the spirit and letter of the JPA. The Obama administration, backed by an assessment from the U.S. intelligence community, has also warned that new sanctions measures passed by Congress would very likely break up the talks and seriously diminish any possibility of a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.
In the Senate, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) have advanced the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013. This act, in addition to enacting a set of new sanctions—which could be delayed until the end of the negotiations period, a distinction which Iran’s foreign minister has made clear is meaningless—also raises the bar substantially on the acceptable parameters of a final, comprehensive deal. And it does so in a way that dramatically undermines the Obama administration’s ability to negotiate an agreement.
In December, Iranian parliamentarians proposed new legislation calling for the enrichment of uranium at higher levels, a move they described as a direct response to the threat of new sanctions. It’s not hard to see how this sort of action, counter-action, and counter-counter-action could quickly disintegrate the small amount of trust that has been painstakingly achieved at Geneva.
In a strongly worded statement last Thursday, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan discussed the threat of new congressional measures. “If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so,” Meehan said. “Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.”
Some members of Congress have complained about this language and this framing of the issue, but it is entirely fair to suggest that those who support measures that threaten to foreclose nonmilitary options be forced to grapple with those implications.
It’s also worth considering some of the key arguments being made by supporters of new sanctions. Supporters of the new sanctions measure claim that because sanctions pressure brought Iran to the table, more sanctions will produce a better deal. However, while sanctions pressure is clearly one factor in Iran’s new conciliatory posture toward nuclear negotiations, it is not the only one. The most important factor is last year’s election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on a platform of improving relations with the international community, easing Iran’s isolation and lessening tensions over the nuclear program. Even though he was not the preferred candidate of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for now Rouhani has Khamenei’s support to negotiate. If, however, the negotiations do not progress, that support could be withdrawn, negotiations would end, and the United States and its partners would be left with nothing but bad options.
Sanctions supporters also claim that new sanctions will give the administration greater leverage over the Iranians. The administration, in response, has repeatedly stressed that the current sanctions regime, the toughest on any country in history, gives it the necessary negotiating leverage, and warned that further sanctions could hurt the chances for a comprehensive deal, both by increasing tensions within the P5+1, whose unity has been essential in bringing us to this point, and by empowering the Rouhani administration’s own hardline critics within the Iranian government, thereby raising political costs for a deal on the Iranian side, perhaps prohibitively.
While sanctions have made a considerable impact on Iran’s economy, there’s little evidence that the country is at a breaking point. The Islamic Republic has shown in the past, most notably during the Iran-Iraq war, that it is willing to endure extreme difficulties in defense of what it perceives as its core national interests. As Iran is taking steps toward addressing concerns over its nuclear program, it’s important that the United States and its partners show that they are willing to affirm those steps.
Moreover, sanctions supporters insist that new sanctions are necessary to make sure Iran doesn’t cheat on its commitments under the first-phase deal, but the JPA already contains provisions for such an eventuality. If Iran is found to be in violation of its commitments under the first-phase agreement, the limited sanctions relief offered under the agreement would quickly be ended and reversed. It’s also worth noting that the sanctions relief granted in the JPA actually amounts to less than the continually compounding impact of other ongoing sanctions not covered in the JPA.
Finally, by describing an end-state deal that denies Iran any domestic enrichment capability, supporters of the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act are creating an insurmountable obstacle to an agreement. While an agreement that completely dismantled Iran’s nuclear program—and therefore removed any possibility that it could produce a nuclear weapon—would be ideal, virtually no one familiar with the realities of Iranian politics, including the former head of Israeli military intelligence, believes that such an outcome is achievable. A more practical and realistic option is one that accepts a small amount of Iranian domestic enrichment, under heavy and intrusive international inspection, while capping the amount of enriched uranium that Iran keeps inside the country. A successful agreement is one that extends the amount of time in which Iran could conceivably dash for a nuclear weapon, thereby increasing the likelihood that such a move would be detected by international inspectors.
Sanctions pressure is not an end in itself, but rather a means to the end of changing Iran’s behavior and getting it to live up to its international commitments. Given the stakes, the risks of passing new sanctions now are extremely high. Supporters of the Nuclear Weapons Free Iran Act may insist, as Sen. Menendez did, that it “is hardly a march to war,” but history shows that measures not conceived as such can effectively serve that purpose. No one predicted at the time that the Iraq Liberation Act, which was promoted as an effort to support democratic movements in Iraq, would within five years result in a U.S. invasion and occupation of that country. In retrospect, it was a significant step in that direction. Supporters of new Iran sanctions may not necessarily desire a war with Iran, but there’s little question that these sanctions would make such an outcome more likely.
Matthew Duss is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.