Arguing that sanctions have served their purpose, and that the promise of sanctions relief is key to securing Iran’s agreement to a comprehensive nuclear deal, three top foreign policy analysts were critical on Monday of congressional efforts to levy new sanctions against Tehran. In particular, they took aim at the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill, which has undergone several revisions aimed at overcoming President Barack Obama’s threatened veto. The bill is scheduled for a mark-up session before the Senate Banking Committee later this week.
In a conference call with reporters, Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security said that while “sanctions proved that [the United States] could hurt Iran economically,” what Iran needs now is proof that the US will be able to lift sanctions under the terms of an agreement, “that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.” This runs contrary to the stated position of sanctions hawks in Congress and lobbying organizations like AIPAC, who frequently argue that if sanctions helped bring Iran to the bargaining table, then more sanctions will force it to accept terms that are more favorable to the US. Of course, accepting that argument means assuming that its proponents genuinely want to see a deal completed and aren’t really acting in bad faith to scuttle the negotiations.
In fact, new sanctions would likely cause Tehran to back away from the talks, as RAND Corporation Iran analyst Alireza Nader pointed out. If Congress were to impose new sanctions now, he said, it would “reinforce the perception in Iran that sanctions will never be lifted.” In that case, an already skeptical Iranian public might gravitate toward the position of political hardliners, who have been predicting for some time now that a deal was impossible and that America could not be trusted to act in good faith. Additional sanctions would help such hardliners in their efforts to make it politically impossible for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to continue to pursue negotiations.
This is not conjecture. As LobeLog contributor Ali Gharib notes, the Iranians themselves have openly said that new sanctions would end the negotiating process. Conservative elements in Iran’s parliament are looking for ways to undermine Rouhani’s domestic support over the nuclear file, even attempting to embarrass his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for taking a 15-minute walk with Secretary of State John Kerry during the most recent round of nuclear talks in Geneva. “Another round of sanctions,” according to Goldenberg, “would obviously be devastating for the talks.”
Indeed, the most recent language of Kirk–Menendez, though weakened considerably from what it was a year ago, would likely trip several Iranian red flags. Ed Levine, who worked for 34 years as a staffer on both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, charitably described the bill as “a good example of the principle that it is really difficult to come up with a bill that helps the negotiations rather than hurting them.” Although the new version is an improvement over last year’s version, he added, it’s “still not good.” The previous version of the bill mandated what a final deal might look like, for example, while the new version moves that language to a non-binding “Sense of Congress” section. This is technically an improvement. But, according to Levine, the distinction would probably be lost on the Iranian side.
Levine also identified several clear flaws remaining in the most recent Kirk-Menendez language, which an assessment of the bill by Americans for Peace Now has also identified. For one thing, the bill emphasizes that a comprehensive deal should prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability rather than a nuclear weapon. Given that many of the technical elements that go into a “nuclear weapons capability” are indistinguishable from the elements that go into a “civilian nuclear weapons program,” it would be virtually impossible for any agreement—let alone one that could pass muster with the Iranians—to achieve this outcome.
The bill also requires that a Verification Assessment Report (VAR) be delivered to the Senate by July 5, only five days after the deadline for reaching an agreement. According to Levine, the submission of a VAR, an assessment of monitoring capabilities in case the country in question decides to violate the terms of the deal, is a common requirement in arms control treaties, but such an assessment typically takes months to produce. Requiring a VAR within five days is unrealistic. Opponents of a deal, according to Levine, would likely use whatever “slapdash” report was produced in that short window as ammunition to argue against approving the deal.
Finally, and most seriously, the bill still prevents any new sanctions relief until Congress has been in session for “30 continuous days” after the agreement is reached. Given Congress’s work schedule, this requirement could block Obama from taking any action for months following an agreement. Levine fears that this delay would split the international solidarity that has been so crucial to the effectiveness of the sanctions. If the European Union and the United Nations begin to ease their sanctions on Iran while America is unable to act, then the rest of the world may be irrevocably out of synch with Washington should it become necessary to revisit the sanctions issue. In short, said Levine, there is “no good reason for taking this bill to the floor of the Senate.”