Congress Should Not Sabotage Iran Nuclear Deal with Additional Sanctions

Volume 5, Issue 1, January 8, 2014

The "Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act" (S. 1881), introduced in the Senate on December 19 by Sens. Menendez (D-N.J.) and Kirk (R-Ill.), threatens to derail the breakthrough agreement that Iran and the P5+1 reached in Geneva on November 24 that will pause Iran's most worrisome nuclear activities in exchange for limited and reversible sanctions relief.

Contrary to the claim of the bill's authors, the proposed legislation would violate the terms of the first-phase deal that the United States and its P5+1 negotiating partners committed to in the November 24 Joint Plan of Action. In addition, the bill would place new and unrealistic restrictions on the comprehensive solution that the parties will soon begin negotiating. Efforts by the U.S. Congress to move the goalposts for the final phase negotiations beyond the parameters already established by the P5+1 would undermine prospects for a final phase agreement that limits Iran's uranium enrichment capacity and other sensitive nuclear fuel cycle projects.

The November 24, first-phase agreement between the P5+1 and Iran is an important opportunity to limit and roll back key areas of Iran's nuclear program. It provides more stringent monitoring and verification mechanisms that will help guard against the pursuit of a secret bomb program. Rather than sabotaging this deal before it is implemented and undermining the prospects for a more far-reaching final phase deal, U.S. policymakers must give Tehran a chance to demonstrate its willingness to curb its nuclear activities and follow through on the actions it is required to take.

S. 1881 Contradicts the Geneva Agreement
In the November 24 agreement, the United States committed to "refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions."

S. 1881, if approved, would directly violate this commitment. This bill would impose further sanctions on Iran in several areas - including greater restrictions on oil imports and expanding business and financial sanctions on Iran's mining and construction sectors.

Nevertheless, the authors of the bill, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Senator Kirk (R-Ill.), argue that their proposal for additional sanctions is not a violation of the agreement because the bill gives the U.S. president authority to temporarily waive the sanctions if Tehran meets the terms of the November 24 agreement.

This reasoning is illogical and incorrect for two reasons. First, this bill would impose new sanctions and, while the measures may not be enforced, they will become law. Iran made clear that it would interpret such a move as a violation of the Joint Plan of Action. Iran's Foreign Minister and lead negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a December 7 interview with Time magazine that the "deal is dead" if the United States imposes more sanctions, even if they do not go into effect during the six month time frame of the first-phase agreement.

Additionally, the conditions that must be met for the president to waive the sanctions exceed the terms of the Joint Plan of Action - specifically the bill requires Iran to adhere to limits on ballistic missile testing and the prohibition of financing for terrorist groups acting against the United States. Neither of these areas were addressed in the November 24 agreement. Requiring Iran to adhere to further stipulations in order to avoid further sanctions is a violation of this agreement.

Sen. Menendez argues that the additional sanctions should be approved now because "If we wait until we determine whether or not a negotiation succeeds, and if it fails, and then try to move" there may not be enough time before Iran can produce enough fissile material for nuclear weapons.  

If Iran violates the November 24 agreement or talks fail to produce a comprehensive agreement, Congress can quickly pass new sanctions--within days--and the administration says it would fully support further sanctions measures under such circumstances.

However, no member of Congress, including Sen. Menendez, should be under the illusion that further sanctions can or will stop Iran from advancing its sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities if the current round of talks fail. Only a serious, verifiable diplomatic agreement that significantly limits its enrichment capacity and increases international inspection authority to verify compliance and deter possible cheating will be effective in the long-run.

S. 1881 Threatens International Unity
The sanctions imposed on Iran played a role in motivating Tehran's leadership to reach the first-phase deal agreed to in Geneva on November 24. This success, however, was due to solid international support for unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. Moving forward on this bill threatens to erode support for existing sanctions amongst Washington's five other negotiating partners that could fracture sanctions enforcement.

Enforcement of the core sanctions regime that remains in place, including U.S. sanctions on Iran's oil and banking industries will be integral in motivating Iran to reach a comprehensive agreement. If international support for enforcing these sanctions falters because the U.S. is viewed as not holding up its end of the November 24 agreement, one of the key factors pushing Iran to agree to a deal that seriously limits its nuclear potential will have been removed.

S. 1881, by imposing additional sanctions would risk alienating states, such as China, that have cooperated with the existing sanctions regime. Why? If passed into law, S. 1881 would require countries still importing oil from Iran, such as China, to reduce their imports by 30 percent within the first year and to near zero within two years. This places an unrealistic burden on the countries that still import oil on Iran and places the United States in the position of having to sanction banks from these countries in the future, if the oil import cuts are not met.

This legislation also sends the signal to Iran and the international community that the United States cannot deliver its end of the agreement. It stands in stark contrast with the December 16 meeting of the EU Foreign Ministers, during which they agreed to support the November 24 agreement and refrain from passing further sanctions during the course of its implementation.

Following the meeting of the foreign ministers, EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton, leader of the P5+1 negotiating team, also encouraged all parties to "refrain from actions that could delay" implementation of the November 24 agreement. Moving forward on S. 1881 will certainly delay the agreement.

S. 1881 Would Set Unrealistic Demands on A Final Agreement
The Menendez-Kirk bill also sets out unrealistic demands for the comprehensive deal that Iran will not accept and contradict the broad parameters of the agreement laid out in the November 24 deal.

According to the November 24 Joint Plan of Action, the comprehensive, final phase agreement will include a "mutually defined enrichment program" for Iran. However, S. 1881 seeks to impose a different outcome by allowing the suspension of sanctions only if Iran agrees to zero-enrichment and complete dismantlement of its "illicit nuclear infrastructure," which presumably would include Iran's uranium enrichment facilities and the heavy water reactor under construction at Arak.

Such an outcome may have been conceivable in 2005-2006 when Iran agreed to suspend enrichment work and had less than 300 centrifuges. But today, demands that Iran permanently halt uranium enrichment are unrealistic and unattainable. A deal that bars Iran from enriching uranium for peaceful purposes would be unsustainable politically inside Iran-and such an outcome is not necessary to guard against a nuclear-armed Iran if appropriate limits and monitoring mechanisms are put in place.

S. 1881 also stipulates that the President may only waive sanctions if Iran complies with all earlier and relevant UN Security Council resolutions. Some of the bill's cosponsors have erroneously interpreted the UNSC resolutions to mean that Iran must permanently "suspend" all uranium enrichment activities.

In reality, the UNSC demand for suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran is meant to restore confidence in the peaceful nature of its nuclear program during the course of negotiations on a permanent solution. It is not a demand to permanently cease all uranium enrichment activities. The November 24 first phase agreement effectively accomplishes the suspension goal of the UNSC by capping the total amount of 3.5% material and it goes further by requiring Iran to convert its 20% stockpiles and to cease all enrichment to 20% levels while a comprehensive agreement is negotiated.

An additional goal established by the P5+1 and Iran in the November 24 Joint Plan of Action for the final phase agreement is the lifting of all U.S. nuclear-related sanctions. S. 1881 would seek to keep the nuclear-related sanctions in place and only allow the U.S. President to waive implementation on a yearly basis if the president certifies that Iran is complying with the comprehensive agreement. This could be interpreted as a violation of the agreement, which calls for a "comprehensive lift" of the sanctions, not merely a series of temporary waivers.

S. 1881 would also try to impose a fixed time frame for the final phase negotiations. According to the legislation, the P5+1 would only have one year to reach a final deal before the sanctions laid out in the bill would be imposed. The bill limits the presidential waiver period to 180 days, plus four 30-day extensions.  Given the complexity of these negotiations, there is a good chance that the first-phase deal could be extended for and a second, or third, 6-month time period while negotiations on a comprehensive agreement continue.

S. 1881 Gives Iranian Hardliners Ammunition
From a negotiating perspective, moving forward on this bill will also give the hardliners in Iran considerable ammunition to assert that the United States is not following through on its commitments in the Joint Plan of Action and will not negotiate a comprehensive agreement in good faith. This could narrow the space that President Rouhani has to negotiate a final deal.

Already in the Iranian Parliament, a law was drafted in December that will require Iran to increase its uranium enrichment to 60 percent. As of January 4, over 200 members of parliament signed on in support of the legislation. One member said that this is in retaliation to "America's hostile act" of moving forward on further sanctions.   

Iran currently has no need for uranium enriched to this level, which is still below the 90 percent enrichment required for nuclear weapons. However, several members of parliament said that increased enrichment levels could be used to power Iranian ships in the future, which is permitted under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Uranium enriched to 60 percent would also allow Iran to move more quickly to weapons-grade enrichment levels, if Tehran chose to do so.

Bottom Line
Moving forward on further, U.S. imposed Iran sanctions at this time will sabotage the important progress made in Geneva to limit Iran's nuclear activities and improve IAEA scrutiny of its program. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a December19 press briefing that moving forward on additional sanctions at this time would "proactively undermine American diplomacy."

As European High Representative Catherine Ashton, the lead P5+1 negotiator, said on Dec. 16, "It is a very sensitive diplomatic process." She added, "it is important that we refrain from actions that could delay the process. And as you already know, the E3 +3 have made a commitment to refrain from additional sanctions for the implementation period."

Though the cosponsors of S. 1881 may have good intentions, their bill threatens the diplomatic opportunity to rein-in Iran's nuclear capabilities, it would contradict the commitments made by the United States--to both Iran and our P5+1 negotiating partners--to refrain from approving further sanctions legislation, and, most significantly, could push Iran to pull out of the deal and allow it to continue advancing its nuclear program without restrictions.

New, additional sanctions are clearly unnecessary. The existing, core sanctions regime provides more than sufficient leverage on Iran to take further concrete measures to restrain its nuclear potential and improve transparency measure necessary to guard against a secret nuclear weapons effort in the future.

The Senate need not and should not move forward with new sanctions legislation, such as S. 1881, at this time and should support--not blow up--the promising P5+1 diplomatic process to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.--KELSEY DAVENPORT and DARYL G. KIMBALL


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today. Daryl G. Kimball is ACA's executive director.