Could New Sanctions Bills Jeopardize the Iran Deal?

The new year will bring with it a host of issues for the international community to contend with. High on the agenda will be implementation of the interim deal over the Iranian nuclear program, which was agreed to in 2013 after intense negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China). The deal has been largely welcomed by the international community as an opportunity to create the space and trust needed for negotiating a more substantial, longer-term solution. However, some continue to treat it with skepticism and, in some cases, outright opposition – including members of the political elite in Israel, certain members of US Congress, and some of Iran’s Gulf neighbours.

Experts from the P5+1 and Iran met again in Geneva on December 30th to discuss exactly how the deal will be implemented, and there are plans for further talks to be held this month. Yet these useful and essential discussions risk being overshadowed by the looming threat of new sanctions by US lawmakers. On December 19th, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a bill (S.1881) to impose new oil and financial sanctions on Iran. Supporters of the bill insist that it is a precautionary measure, and that sanctions will only be imposed if Iran fails to meet the terms of the initial deal, or if a permanent agreement is not made after the 6 month interim period. The bill is yet to be put to the Senate floor for a vote, but to date it has received support from both Democrats and Republicans – 53 in total.

After decades of historical mistrust between the U.S. and Iran, it is understandable that there will be some healthy skepticism. But the question we should now be asking is whether we want this mistrust to continue. Assuming we don’t, we need to find a way through this complex dynamic that will lead us to a long-term solution. We are at a fork in the road, and we have the opportunity to choose our path: we can seek to rebuild trust and build a sustainable solution, or we can attempt to force a resolution. History tells us how poorly the latter works.

Sanctions are widely credited with being a determining factor in getting Iran to the table. But now they are at the table, it surely makes better diplomatic and negotiating sense to leverage that opportunity rather than compound mistrust by tightening the screws further. Bill S.1881, if it were passed, risks doing more harm than good to US-Iran relations. Some argue that additional sanctions would force Iran’s hand to further limit their uranium enrichment. But we may find that the exact opposite occurs.

After the introduction of bill S.1881, members of the Iranian parliament responded by introducing their own proposed legislation that would increase uranium enrichment to more than 20 percent (i.e. weapons-grade). The imposition of new sanctions would likely be counterproductive, building further resentment in Iran and stimulating push-back rather than cooperation. Iran may be more likely to pursue its nuclear ambitions if it feels that the US is acting in bad faith, risking increased tensions between the two nations, and even new military conflict in the region.

As Congress prepares to begin the second year of its 113th session, experts in the international affairs and non-proliferation communities are urging members to hold off on new sanctions legislation until the deal has been given a chance to be implemented. A January 6th letter addressed to Senator Menendez authored by a group of high-profile experts and former Ambassadors sets out their concerns surrounding the proposed legislation. “The bill will threaten the prospects for success in the current negotiations and thus present us and our friends with a stark choice– military action or living with a nuclear Iran.” Not only would current negotiations be undermined, Iran’s negotiation position may well harden, resulting in more, rather than less, strained diplomatic relations between the two countries.

This is not the first time the current talks have been affected by actions on sanctions. In early December 2013, Iranian President Rouhani ended talks prematurely after the White House cracked down on oil and shipping companies who were helping Iran avoid sanctions already in place. Despite this action, the administration has vowed to veto any new sanctions legislation. It seemed that before the Christmas recess, Congress had eased up on its push for increased sanctions. House minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who initially pushed for new sanctions legislation, decided that it “was not the time to move forward with a resolution given implementation talks have not yet wrapped in Geneva.” At the time other representatives followed suit. Yet, the start of the new year appears to have revived the debate. House Majority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) sent a memo to House Republicans on January 3rd calling on members to seek a new, improved Iran resolution, most likely to include sanctions.

When addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee last month, Secretary of State John Kerry made a case against sanctions legislation. The United States “has a chance to address peacefully one of the most pressing national security concerns that the world faces today. We’re at a crossroads. We’re at one of those really hinge points in history. One path could lead to an enduring resolution in the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The other path could lead to continued hostility and potentially to conflict.” The outcome on the nuclear deal depends not only on Iran, but on whether or not the United States will hold up to its side of the agreement.

Many members of the elite political community in the US Capitol argue that new sanctions are a safety net, in case Iran does not fulfil its end of the interim agreement. Yet others outside Washington, including Iranian legislators are likely to view such legislation as an act of ill-faith on behalf of the United States. Such new sanctions, whatever their intention, could risk torpedoing the interim deal. Skepticism in Congress of Iran’s intentions does not come without reason, but sanctions may not be the most effective way to ease those worries. There must be an alternative to sanctions that can provide legislators with reassurance without undermining the deal.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of BASIC or its funders.


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