More sanctions could undermine the Iran deal

The following weeks are likely to be challenging ones, domestically and internationally, for the Obama administration. While the interim deal over the Iranian nuclear programme has been welcomed as a positive first step by many in the international community and in arms control circles, US congressional support has been less full-throated. Certain members of Congress are gearing up to do battle with the administration over the terms of the deal, and this coming week senior members of the administration will likely push back against those advocating for fresh sanctions against Iran, which could put in jeopardy the commitments made in the deal.

Secretary of state John Kerry will be speaking at a hearing in front of the House foreign affairs committee on Tuesday. Wendy Sherman, the under-secretary for political affairs at the State Department and David Cohen, the under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury, will also be testifying at a hearing with the Senate banking committee on Thursday. These will be critical opportunities for the administration to provide the information and assurance necessary to encourage Congress to give the interim agreement the room it needs to deliver results.

The six-month agreement is unlikely to officially begin until January – this week representatives from the P5+1 and Iran will be meeting in Geneva to discuss implementation. In broad terms, Iran will receive an estimated billion of sanctions relief in exchange for the temporary freezing of their nuclear programme. The intention is to provide the space and political context needed to negotiate a fuller, longer-term agreement.

Since their return from the negotiations in Geneva two weeks ago, the Obama administration has been actively engaging its domestic audience – particularly members of Congress – to stress that this temporary easing of sanctions is both reversible, should Iran renege on the deal, and limited. With Iran currently experiencing around billion of frozen assets through existing sanctions, the temporary relief is comparatively modest, and does not imply the deconstruction of the full sanctions architecture.

However, some hawks in the US political system have been loudly protesting the interim deal. Given the difficult relationship with Iran in the past, they are skeptical that it will be carried out in good faith. They argue that Iran is gaining much in return for delivering little, and most importantly that this short-term arrangement may damage the US special relationship with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the agreement has indeed been vociferous, calling it, among other things, a “historic mistake”.

Not all in the Israeli administration support Netanyahu’s position, and the public reaction has been far more nuanced. The Israeli markets spiked immediately after the deal was made, indicating investor confidence. A number of senior Israeli political figures have voiced support for the agreement as a first step towards a longer-term resolution. President Shimon Peres said yesterday that he was now ready to meet with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. In the US initial polling indicates overwhelming American public support for the interim deal.

However, some in Congress believe that resolving the Iranian nuclear issue will require more sanctions rather than the temporary easing that the US committed to in the interim deal. They argue that sanctions brought Iran to the table and only increased pressure, rather than diplomatic negotiation, will keep them there.

To implement new sanctions legislation in the US, a bill must be passed by both the House and the Senate, and finally signed off by the president. A presidential veto can be overridden by a two-thirds majority of the House (290 votes) and Senate (67 votes). So while the administration can lobby Congress to support the interim deal with Iran – and has been doing so – it cannot prevent them from introducing and passing further sanctions legislation. And while the president may have veto power, further movement by Congress risks being perceived as undermining the terms of the interim agreement by both Iran and the P5+1 partners.

At present, those agitating for more pressure on Iran largely sit within the US House of Representatives. In July this year – four months before the interim deal was agreed – the House passed the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act calling for additional sanctions to be implemented against Iran for their nuclear activities. The bill enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, receiving 378 co-sponsors and passing with 400 votes to 20.

Since the interim deal was agreed, House support for additional sanctions has continued – albeit with less comprehensive vigour. On 5 December, Representative Scalise from Louisiana introduced a draft resolution with 33 co-sponsors calling for Congress once again to increase sanctions against Iran. Scalise’s latest resolution is extremely unlikely to be voted on or even discussed further at committee level in the House. But it represents an effort to exert pressure on the Senate.

Across the street, the Senate response has been more nuanced – so far. It looks unlikely that they will pass new sanctions legislation in 2013, and it is unclear where they will come out in 2014. A bipartisan pairing of members – Sen. Menendez from New Jersey, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, and Sen. Kirk from Illinois – may this week however introduce their own legislation to put in place new sanctions if no ‘legitimate’ deal is made after the six-month interim deal expires.

Even if new legislation is presented in 2014, it is not guaranteed to pass nor is it likely to get the president’s sign-off. However such an approach starts from a point of presumed failure of the interim deal rather than presumed success, which may have a negative impact on the agreement. And, what is worse, it takes valuable time and energy away from deciding how best to get a long-term agreement that would increase the security not only of the US but also of Iran’s neighbouring states.

Any final deal must be strong, substantive and genuinely reassuring for the international community and the Middle East region, including Israel. But to achieve that we need to be clear what effect sanctions will have. Even if they have been a significant factor in getting Iran to the negotiating table, the strategy today ought to reflect what will keep them there. Further sanctions – particularly when we have just committed to a temporary easing – would undoubtedly undermine the trust necessary to ensure the diplomatic process succeeds.

These are the opinions of the author. This article was originally featured on a regular column by Rebecca on OpenSecurity, a forum of

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