Misguided New Iran Measures in Congress would Scuttle Negotiations

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Misguided New Iran Measures in Congress would Scuttle Negotiations

Misguided New Iran Measures in Congress would Scuttle Negotiations

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in Geneva today ahead of the start of the next round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiators are working to reach a political agreement by March and a technical plan for implementation by July, in accordance with an extension of the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), which has facilitated the talks. Under the JPOA, Iran has allowed international inspections, frozen its nuclear program, and reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium. Negotiators now have a real chance to strike a deal that would prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. However, some members of Congress are pushing legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran or require congressional approval of a deal. These actions would scuttle negotiations, lose the JPOA’s gains in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program, and squander this critical diplomatic opportunity.

Congress is pushing forward with new proposals that would derail the talks. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) are preparing to reintroduce legislation from December 2013 that would impose new “triggered sanctions” against Iran should the nuclear negotiations falter. The Senate Banking Committee will hold a hearing on new sanctions next Tuesday, January 20, and the bill is expected to be considered soon after. Additionally, the Senate is considering a proposal by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to require any deal that comes out of the P5+1 negotiations to receive immediate congressional consideration and a potential vote of disapproval. While the bills’ sponsors claim that these are designed to ensure a good deal, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) says that the goal of the legislation is to prevent a deal. “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,” he said at a conference at the Heritage Foundation yesterday. [Tom Cotton, 1/13/15]

Congress’ focus on sanctions is myopic; it’s the negotiations that have kept Iran’s nuclear program frozen and rolled back its stockpiles of enriched uranium. Speaking at the University of Louisville on Monday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power credited the role of sanctions in bringing Iran to the table, but “at this time, increasing sanctions would dramatically undermine our efforts to reach this shared goal,” she explained. “Sanctions did indeed help to bring Iran to the negotiating table,” she continued. “But sanctions did not stop the advance of Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations have done that, and it is in our interest not to deny ourselves the chance to achieve a long-term, comprehensive solution that would deny Iran a nuclear weapon.” Focusing on new sanctions at the expense of the negotiations threatens to unravel the progress the United States and its partners have made in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. Under the JPOA, Iran has been compelled to freeze its nuclear program and dilute its stockpile of 20%-enriched uranium or convert it to forms that cannot easily be used in a weapon, all while allowing extensive and intrusive international monitoring and verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The United States has done this at comparatively little cost: as Laicie Heeley, Policy Director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, noted yesterday, the framework for U.S. sanctions against Iran remains in place, and the limited relief the United States has given in accordance with the JPOA has resulted in less economic benefit to Iran than the U.S. Treasury Department estimated. [Samantha Power, 1/12/15]

The legislation is dangerous political brinksmanship with the negotiations that the United States wouldn’t tolerate if it came from Iran. Paul Pillar posed the question last week: What if Iran were to pursue similar legislation, saying that they would unequivocally resume its nuclear program and remove international inspectors, returning to the pre-JPOA state of affairs, should the talks fail? “Just like the American hardliners, the Iranian hardliners would justify their legislation as a conditional measure that would help to provide an incentive to the other side to negotiate seriously and not to drag out the talks indefinitely,” Pillar wrote. The result would clearly be to derail the talks. “Americans of various political stripes would denounce the action of the majlis as a major show of Iranian bad faith. The talk in Washington would not be about making more U.S. concessions but instead about what the United States could do to pressure Iran in return. Those who had openly questioned Iran’s seriousness about wanting an agreement would say, ‘We told you so.’ Even those in the U.S. administration with high confidence in the good will of Rouhani would have their faith shaken in his ability to implement the terms of an agreement.” Conservative proposals for new sanctions for congressional approval of a deal are ill-conceived gambits that jeopardize the negotiations, and if Iran did the same to the United States, Congress would not be so cavalier about its consequences. [Paul Pillar, 1/9/15]

Congress’ actions could unravel the international coalition that has been critical to pressuring Iran and allow the United States to be blamed for the talks’ failure. “The negotiations have worked so far in large part because we have remained united on our side of the negotiating table with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China,” Power said on Monday. “Other countries have also supported the international sanctions regime that we, the European Union, and the UN Security Council have built. If our international partners believe that the United States has acted prematurely by adding new sanctions now – as they most surely would – their willingness to enforce sanctions collectively is likely to wane. And broad international enforcement is what has made our sanctions exponentially more effective than bilateral sanctions alone. We have made great strides in bringing the international community together in isolating Iran and imposing significant costs on Tehran for pursuing a nuclear program that has raised profound concerns. That consensus is what gives us leverage with Iran. If we pull the trigger on new nuclear-related sanctions now, we will go from isolating Iran to potentially isolating ourselves. We go from a position of collective strength to a position of individual weakness.” If the international coalition were to collapse because of congressional action, Iran would gain a benefit in global opinion by being able to cast blame on the United States for the failure of the process.  [Samantha Power, 1/12/15]

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is taking a large political risk by continuing to pursue a potential deal, and the United States should not squander this moment. Rouhani’s efforts have come under increasing pressure in Iran. He has had to defend the talks in speeches, threaten to circumvent the Iranian legislature by appealing to a popular referendum, and legislators called a vote of no confidence against Zarif (he retained the support of the majority of the majlis). The New York Times cautioned last week against Congress taking actions that could derail the negotiations at a critical moment. “A deal that is verifiable and significantly limits Iran’s nuclear activities can succeed if it both enhances regional security and benefits Iran,” the Times stated in an editorial. “There will still be some risk for all sides. But the bigger risk is squandering this moment and leaving Iran free to pursue an unconstrained nuclear program. This would invite more sanctions, new tensions and perhaps even military action and a cyberattack.” [New York Times, 1/10/15]

Photo Credit: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits down with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif before resuming negotiations. [Flickr, State Department, 1/14/15]

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1.14.2015 Brian Katulis MSNBC