New Sanctions Won’t Stop Iran

Allowing a state-sponsor of terrorism to possess nuclear weapons is unacceptable.

A nuclear-armed Iran would threaten Israel’s existence and set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

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Heavy water reactor in Arak, Iran.

Strong economic sanctions, enforced by the Obama administration and made effective by the international coalition President Obama built and maintained, did not stop Iran’s progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons. The tougher the economic pressure, the harder Iran worked on developing its capabilities.

However, tough sanctions did bring Iran to the negotiating table. Under the Joint Plan of Action (the interim agreement), Iran finally agreed to halt, and in some cases roll back its nuclear program in return for a limited, reversible sanctions relief.

Iran’s economy still suffers from the tough sanctions that remain in place, giving Iran a tremendous incentive to continue negotiating toward a comprehensive agreement. But time no longer works against the U.S., and will not work against it for as long as both it and Iran continue to comply with the interim agreement.

President Obama has repeatedly stated that his goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; that all options, including the military option, are on the table; and that if the talks fail — he rates their chance of success as 50-50 at best — then not only will the limited sanctions relief end, but he will ask Congress for tougher sanctions.

Sanctions alone will not stop Iran. It would be irresponsible not to ratchet up the sanctions if talks failed, but if talks do fail, sanctions will be even less likely than negotiations to stop Iran. The only remaining option will then be military action, and while it might stop Iran in the short term, it will guarantee that Iran will do all it can to eventually acquire nuclear weapons.

That is why negotiations remain our best hope for stopping Iran, and that is why, with so much at stake, Congress would be foolish to take any action that could even arguably violate the interim agreement, create uncertainty, or call our good faith into question.

The interim agreement expires in July, but Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the deadline for reaching agreement on a framework is the end of March. If we get there, the next three months would be spent hammering out the details. So as a practical matter, we will know if we are likely to have a deal in two and a half months, and negotiations are proceeding based on that expectation.

However, new Iran sanctions legislation will soon be proposed.

A draft of the new Kirk-Menendez bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, would impose sanctions if the interim agreement expires without a long-term, comprehensive solution that will prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Congress should debate the bill and schedule a vote in early April.

The bill contains a provision allowing the President to waive sanctions, if he feels that it is necessary to conclude a comprehensive agreement. However, this is a draft, and it could change prior to introduction in the Senate.

Even a bill whose terms do not take effect until the expiration of the interim agreement will violate the interim agreement, if it becomes law while the interim agreement is still in force. Passage of such a bill would be viewed by Iran and the U.S.’ allies as needlessly provocative and as a sign of bad faith.

Moreover, this bill would do nothing prior to the expiration of the interim agreement except poke a finger in Iran’s eye, and maybe the administration’s eye too. Why risk poisoning the atmosphere in the midst of delicate negotiations?

Even if one believes that the bill would not violate the interim agreement, even if one believes that it would not impair negotiations, why take that chance? Regardless of when the bill is enacted, new sanctions would only kick in after the expiration of the interim agreement. Why pass this bill now instead of waiting just two and a half months?

It can only be worse off if this bill passes now; it cannot be better off, and if this bill does scuttle the talks, the world will rightly blame the U.S., making it much less likely that its allies would join in tougher sanctions. And without the cooperation of those allies, the sanctions called for in this bill will be much less effective.

British prime minister, David Cameron, one of the U.S.’ key allies on Iran, urged Congress last Friday not to pass sanctions legislation. Cameron said that such legislation would “fracture unity” among the international coalition that is confronting Iran.

Would passing a bill now send a signal to Iran? What signal? The President has already made clear that we will impose more sanctions if talks fail, and no one doubts that Congress will accede to his request.

The only signals this bill would send are signals to the U.S.’ allies, that it does not care what they think; and signals to hard-liners in Iran, that maybe they should now threaten the U.S. with action should talks fail; or worse, that they might as well break off negotiations now.

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