The agreement struck between Iran and six world powers in Geneva last month freezes and modestly rolls back Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for a pause in imposing new international sanctions and a suspension of some existing penalties. The deal—designed to create a six-month window to negotiate a final, peaceful solution to the nuclear dispute—represents the most meaningful step to slow Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapons capability in more than a decade.
Despite the historic nature of the agreement, it has met with considerable skepticism in the halls of Congress, where several senators have vowed to move forward with a fresh round of economic pressure on Iran. Because “Iran simply freezes its nuclear capabilities while we reduce the sanctions,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer declared, “this disproportionality … makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when we return in December.” Sen. Marco Rubio echoed this sentiment, calling on Congress to “increase sanctions until Iran completely abandons its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.”
Sanctions proponents claim that new legislation would strengthen President Barack Obama’s hand and incentivize further Iranian concessions. Unfortunately, the opposite is more likely the case. New sanctions are dangerous and threaten to derail diplomacy, making a peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear challenge more difficult to achieve.
Some senators are pushing for the body to take up a version of crippling sanctions legislation passed by the House of Representatives last July as early as this week. Sens. Robert Menendez and Mark Kirk, two longtime sanctions hawks, are crafting legislation that would aim to sharply reduce remaining Iranian oil sales and impose additional limitations on Iranian financial transactions. The new penalties would have a “deferred trigger,” however, allowing Obama to suspend their application for six months if Iran implements the Geneva agreement and ultimately accepts more comprehensive constraints on its nuclear program.
Since no one—especially the Iranian regime—doubts that Congress will slap Tehran with additional penalties in six months time if it violates the terms set at Geneva or drags its feet in continuing negotiations, the value of stating the obvious now in legislation is unclear. But beyond being unnecessary, the move to enshrine the threat of future sanctions is unnecessarily provocative.
Even if new sanctions do not kick in immediately, passing such legislation now would most likely be viewed in Tehran as evidence of American bad faith. The Geneva Joint Plan of Action says that “the U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions” for the period of the agreement. Deferred congressional sanctions may not violate the letter of the agreement, but they most certainly violate its spirit, providing Iranian forces hoping to scuttle the next phase of diplomacy a prime opportunity to do so. For this reason, if Congress moves forward with such legislation, Iran’s moderate Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has warned that “[t]he entire deal is dead.”
The Revolutionary Guard and other Iranian hard-liners are deeply skeptical of the Geneva agreement and are keen to put the brakes on further accommodation. Capitalizing on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s long-standing suspicions that America “is not trustworthy, is self-important and breaks its promises,” hard-liners would use new sanctions legislation to demonstrate the unrelenting hostility of the “Great Satan” toward Iran. After all, they will argue, if Iranian concessions simply expose the Islamic Republic to greater Western pressure, what is the point? Iran’s pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani and his lead negotiator Zarif would be put on the defensive.
There’s a history here. A decade ago, when Rouhani was Iran’s nuclear negotiator, he was labeled an “appeaser” by hard-line forces because he advocated Iranian concessions that went unreciprocated by the West. If Washington responds to Iran’s positive moves at Geneva with a fresh round of economic threats, old battles would have to be fought anew. Rouhani and his team would be forced to spend scarce political capital to defend the interim deal, leaving them little in reserve to forge elite consensus for accepting more significant constraints on Iran’s nuclear program in the next phase of negotiations. The chances of moderate forces maintaining their current momentum within the Iranian system would diminish, along with the prospects of achieving a final, peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear challenge.
Champions of new sanctions dismiss these concerns. “We consistently hear about how we have to worry about the hard-liners in Iran. And it seems that the Iranians get to play good cop-bad cop,” Sen. Menendez recently said, but “we can’t.” Menendez contends that new sanctions legislation “strengthens the administration’s hand” in negotiations by conveying to Iran “[t]his is what’s coming if you don’t strike a deal … . But if we strike a deal, those sanctions will never go into effect.”
But imagine if the situation were reversed.
Suppose the Majles, Iran’s legislature, passed legislation tomorrow, over Rouhani’s objections, declaring that Iran would resume and escalate its nuclear activities in six months’ time if Washington failed to live up to its Geneva commitments and agree to a final deal that fully respects Iran’s nuclear rights. Imagine that the legislation threatened to resume enrichment of nearly bomb-grade 20 percent uranium (halted by Geneva); bring all 16,000 first-generation centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment site online (only 9,000 were operating pre-Geneva) and move to install thousands more; activate the 1,000 next-generation centrifuges currently installed at Natanz (none are operational now) and step up planned assembly of 2,000 new ones; activate all 3,000 centrifuges at the deeply buried Fordow enrichment site (only 1,000 were spinning pre-Geneva), making the facility fully operation for the first time; begin enriching to the even-closer-to-bomb-grade 60 percent level for “civilian naval propulsion”; and significantly accelerate fuel production for the Arak plutonium reactor.
Suppose further that when asked by an Iranian reporter whether this legislation risked undercutting diplomacy, speaker of the Majles Ali Larijani pooh-poohed the notion, assuring the media that this in no way violates the terms agreed to in Geneva. After all, Larjani would say, “Iran is doing nothing now. We are simply creating a sword of Damocles as leverage to ensure the Americans live up to their end of the bargain and accept a final agreement that respects Iran’s red lines.”
How would U.S. lawmakers view such a move? Would they see it as consistent with the letter and spirit of Geneva? Would it enhance American support for diplomacy? Would the threatened Iranian escalation be helpful to Obama as he works to convince skeptics on Capitol Hill of the need to back continued negotiations and support future compromise? Or would it put the administration on the defensive, confirm the worst American suspicions about Iranian intentions, complicate diplomacy and make a confrontation over the nuclear program more likely?
Were Tehran to pursue this course, the answers seem obvious. And if the Senate moves forward with new sanctions now—just as talks with Iran are finally starting to bear fruit—the answers on the Iranian side will very likely be just as obvious.
Colin H. Kahl is associate professor in Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. From 2009 to 2011, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East.