Congress Should Support Negotiations, Not New Iran Sanctions

Volume 7, Issue 1, January 15, 2015 

The United States has an historic opportunity to limit Iran’s nuclear program, block its pathways to the bomb, and guard against a covert nuclear weapons program.

Congressional action on sanctions at this time, however, threatens the significant progress made over the past year by the United States, its allies, and Iran toward a comprehensive nuclear deal.

Moving forward on new sanctions legislation against Iran threatens to derail negotiations, push Iran away from the negotiating table, and erode international support for the sanctions regime currently in place.

Contrary to the claims of sanctions proponents, any new nuclear-related sanctions legislation on Iran at this time would violate the terms of the first-phase deal that the United States and its P5+1 negotiating partners (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) committed to in the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action.

In addition, a bill might place new and unrealistic requirements on the comprehensive agreement that the parties are currently 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.

A comprehensive nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran is the only effective way to limit Iran's nuclear program and ensure that it is entirely peaceful. Rather than sabotaging the progress made to date and undermining the prospects for a more far-reaching final phase deal, the Congress should allow the P5+1 negotiators the time and support necessary to negotiate an effective diplomatic solution.

Sanctions Violate the Interim Deal

Several members of Congress are drafting new sanctions legislation. If approved, these sanctions would directly violate the United States commitment to "refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions" under the November 24, 2013 interim agreement

The most imminent sanctions bill will be considered before the Senate Banking Committee on Jan. 20 and marked-up later in the week. Its primary authors, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), introduced a sanctions bill in December 2013, S. 1881, which, if passed, would have derailed the talks and the progress generated under the interim deal--which has halted the most worrisome aspects of Iran’s nuclear program and rolled back key elements.

Proponents of additional sanctions at this time claim that these measures will not go into effect until negotiations breakdown and that the possibility of additional sanctions pressure will keep Iran at the negotiating table.

However, passing new sanctions while talks are ongoing risks shattering the carefully built international coalition pressuring Iran to remain at the negotiating table.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power said on Jan. 12 that the administration opposes new sanctions at this time, noting that "if we pull the trigger on new nuclear-related sanctions now, we will go from isolating Iran to potentially isolating ourselves."

If Washington passes sanctions now, the United States would be blamed for any breakdown of the talks, and other countries may resume trade with Iran. That would dramatically reduce U.S. leverage and the prospects for a diplomatic solution.

Even if sanctions were designed not go into effect immediately, and are “triggered” by an event such as the breakdown of talks, they would directly contradict the terms of the Joint Plan of Action. Triggered sanctions that depend on a “breakdown” also would require a subjective determination of what constitutes a breakdown in the talks.

Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former senior advisor the U.S. Department of Treasury, said at an Arms Control Association-Carnegie event on Dec. 3 that triggered sanctions send the wrong message to Iran. Rosenberg, now at the Center for a New American Security, said that sanctions at this time “... will be seen as an act of bad faith in Iran on the part of the U.S. and a sign that the U.S. negotiating team will not be able to deliver what it promises and that it won’t be able to successfully coordinate with Congress.”  

Rosenberg also said that “Iranians may not believe that Congress won’t change the goal posts again” when it comes time to lift sanctions when Iran takes particular actions in the event of a comprehensive agreement.

More Pressure Will Not Help

Some members of Congress, however, mistakenly believe that additional economic pressure at this time will push Iran to make further concessions at the negotiating table.

Kirk said on Jan. 4, “now is the time to put pressure on Iran especially with oil prices so low. We are uniquely advantaged at this time to shut down this nuclear program.”

This reasoning is illogical and incorrect for several reasons.

From a negotiating perspective, moving forward on any sanctions bill will 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 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has to negotiate a final deal even further.

New sanctions could also cause Iran to pull out of the negotiations. Iran made clear last year 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 that a "deal is dead" if the United States imposes more sanctions, even if they do not go into effect during the negotiations.

However, for some members of Congress, the purpose of passing new sanctions is to end negotiations. Sen.Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said on Jan. 13 “the end of these negotiations isn't an unintended consequence of congressional action. It is very much an intended consequence, a feature, not a bug, so to speak."

Rejecting a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran before it is reached is irresponsible and dangerous. If the United States violates the interim agreement and talks fail, Iran is likely to also move down the path of escalation.

In December 2013, after Menendez and Kirk released the text of their sanctions bill, S. 1881, Iran drafted a law that would require Tehran to increase its uranium enrichment to 60 percent. One Iranian lawmaker said it was in response to “America’s hostile act.” While short of the 90 percent required for weapons-grade uranium, 60 percent puts Iran considerably closer than the five percent cap Tehran agreed to under the interim agreement.

The only way to block Iran’s pathways to the bomb, limit its nuclear activities, and put in place sufficiently intrusive monitoring to promptly detect a dash to the bomb is through a comprehensive nuclear deal. A return to the pre-interim agreement status quo of Iran’s steadily increasing nuclear capabilities with less international monitoring threatens U.S. and international security.  

Onerous and Unrealistic Conditions

Sanctions legislation in the past has also sought to put onerous and unnecessary constraints on the terms of a final deal. S. 1881, for instance, contained provisions that prevented sanctions relief unless Iran agreed 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 project at Arak.

Not only are these demands unrealistic and unnecessary to guard against a nuclear weapons program, they also contradict the broad parameters laid out in the November 2013 interim agreement. The interim deal states that Iran will have a limited uranium-enrichment program based on its “practical needs.”

Demanding complete dismantlement or zero enrichment may have been conceivable a decade ago when Iran only had a few hundred 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. Additionally, such an outcome is not necessary.

The agreement that the negotiators from the United States, France, the U.K. Germany, France, China and Russia are now pursuing would dramatically increase the time it would take to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb and put in place new international monitoring mechanisms to ensure compliance and to promptly detect a clandestine nuclear weapons effort.

Bottom Line

Contrary to the claims of proponents, legislation that imposes new sanctions on Iran would undermine, not enhance, the diplomatic effort to secure a comprehensive nuclear deal to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

New, additional sanctions on Iran are clearly unnecessary at this time. The existing sanctions regime provides more than sufficient leverage on Iran to keep it at the negotiating table.

To date, both the P5+1 and Iran have abided by their commitments under the interim agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action. The enactment of additional sanctions would violate the commitment made by the United States in the interim agreement and could push Iran take escalatory steps of its own or pull out of the negotiations.  

If the International Atomic Energy Agency determines in the future that Iran is not fulfilling its commitments under the interim agreement, the Congress would still have the option to act quickly, and if necessary enact new sanctions. But as long as Iran and the P5+1 are holding up their ends of the agreement and a comprehensive deal is possible, Congress should support, not sabotage, the talks. --KELSEY DAVENPORT, DIRECTOR FOR NONPROLIFERATION POLICY