News / Middle East

Column: Senate Should Not Pass New Iran Sanctions Now

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 12, 2014.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 12, 2014.
As a July 20 deadline for a long-term nuclear deal with Iran approaches, there are rumblings again in the US Senate about trying to pass legislation that would threaten Iran with more sanctions.
Senate leadership managed to prevent a vote last year on the bill sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, and Mark Kirk (R-Ill). That helped negotiators reach and implement an interim agreement that significantly constricts Iran’s nuclear program.
An attempt to pass the bill now would send the wrong signal to Iran, which has been scrupulously implementing the interim accord. Why continue to comply with pledges to stop enriching uranium above 5 percent and to convert a stockpile of 20 percent uranium gas to less dangerous forms if the result is more US sanctions? Common sense dictates that punishment should follow, not precede infractions. Pre-emptive threats only strengthen Iranian hardliners who believe that the US objective is regime change, not non-proliferation.
It is, of course, campaign season again in Washington. A third of the Senate seats and all of the House are up for election on Nov. 4. Pandering to lobby groups and big donors is to be expected. But the implications of this legislation for US national interests would be severe.
The sanctions bill, which has reportedly gathered 60 sponsors, has a number of inappropriate provisions. For starters, it tries to dictate the terms of an accord, demanding dismantlement of Iran’s “illicit” nuclear facilities and an end to Iran’s enrichment of uranium.
Rather than push Iran toward compromise as the sponsors of the legislation insist is their goal, these provisions would be deal breakers. The US and the other five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have already agreed in the interim deal that Iran can have a limited uranium enrichment program commensurate with its civilian needs and under strict international supervision. There can be arguments over the number of centrifuges Iran should be allowed to operate but no enrichment is not an option.
There are other troubling elements in the bill. It requires the president to certify that Iran has not conducted any tests of ballistic missiles with ranges longer than 500 kilometers and that Iran has not been involved – directly or indirectly – in any terrorism against the United States. As important as they issues are, they are not part of the nuclear negotiations and in the words of former Senate staffer Edward Levine move the “goalposts” to an accord.
Equally if not more disturbing, the bill gives a seeming green light to a pre-emptive Israeli military strike on Iran by stating that it is the sense of Congress that if Israel feels compelled to attack Iran’s nuclear program, the US should provide Israel with “military support.” President Obama has promised to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons but has discouraged unilateral action by Israel.
Clearly, Obama and Congress are not on the best terms these days and Republicans are looking for new battles with the White House as the controversies over health care and even the deaths of Americans in Benghazi in 2012 begin to fade. But the Iran negotiations provide a realistic prospect of staving off a potential Iranian nuclear weapon for another decade or more and legislators should give the administration a chance to conclude and implement an agreement.   That includes an extra six months for the interim accord, should talks fail to conclude by July 20.
If the talks break down, the onus should be on Tehran, not Washington. A key reason why Iranians are seriously negotiating now is because of unprecedented multilateral sanctions imposed in response to its nuclear advances and the provocative rhetoric of its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That sanctions regime is likely to break down if negotiations are perceived as failing because of unreasonable US actions and demands. The US could then impose new sanctions but they would not have much impact if Europe and the rest of the world do not follow.
Military action is also not the solution. It would bring more instability to an already blood-soaked region and not benefit US allies including Israel and Saudi Arabia. A recent poll conducted in seven Arab nations showed strong support for a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear program and rejection of US military action even in Syria.
US popularity, while still below 50 percent in Arab countries, has begun to rise. James Zogby, head of the organization that conducted the poll, attributed the results to a “softer [US] footprint, the result not so much of actions we’ve committed than actions we’ve avoided.”
Congress would do well to absorb the lessons of past mistakes in dealing with the region – i.e. Iraq -- and listen to their constituents, not just those with the best organization and deepest pockets. A diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue is far better than the alternatives and Congress – if it can’t promote such a solution – should at least not prevent one.

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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Comment Sorting
by: IranFail from: USA
June 07, 2014 4:06 PM
I think what is almost tragic in these discussions is the missed opportunity to link these negotiations to improvements in Iran’s human rights situation. Crippling economic sanctions brought Iran to the bargaining table at long last, not some 11th hour moderate awakening. Iran came to the table reluctantly and with a desire to not give away anything. Iran’s ruling mullahs correctly assumed that Western governments would respond to the mere hope of moderation from Iran after dealing for so long with Ahmadinejad. With Rouhani’s installation, Iran gave the West what it wanted and what foreign policy analysts and Iran’s lobby and PR flaks have hawked as a “fresh start.”
But what that start achieved was to de-link worsening human rights conditions from nuclear talks, which was the real worry for Iran. The fact that Iran received billions in released funds merely on the promise of meeting again in Geneva and reducing stockpiles of enriched uranium without any reduction in centrifuge capacity simply convinced Iran it was on the right path.
Now as the deal again stalls over issues such as Iran’s desire to upgrade its refining capacity with 30,000 new next generation centrifuges instead of reducing the older models it has, the West is beginning to realize the fundamental truth about Iran’s government. Unless a linkage is made to behavior, you will never alter Iran’s stated purpose which the expansion of its form of strict civil and governmental radicalized Islam throughout the region.

by: Godwin from: Nigeria
June 06, 2014 8:41 AM
I can see a lot of sympathy towards Iran by this writer. It's your opinion and you are entitled to it, anyway. However, painting a picture of Iran being able to circumvent international sanctions is to make pussy cat see itself as a lion. Nothing is wrong with that also, because they are all flesh-eating cats. The US started with "Iran must not be allowed to produce a nuclear bomb". Now it is a shift in the goalpost to Iran can only be allowed to produce minimum uranium, plutonium and centrifuges. That is a mark of weakness from all the negotiators except Iran, and the weakness stems from such internal misgivings as showing to the world how war-weary the sleeping giant has become under a weak administration at the White House. What USA should pursue right now is not popularity with the Arab/islamist world but the ability to convince the world - friends and foes - that USA is the superpower that it can hold up on its own if called to duty. This refers to respect rather than popularity. At the long run it is respect that earns you what you want not popularity - especially when it concerns the islamist world. They only deal with you based on how much respect they have for you, not how popular you have become.
In Response

by: Dave1967 from: Tennessee
June 06, 2014 11:11 AM
I agree with you there Godwin. The Obama administration looks for popularity rather than respect and will win up getting neither respect or popularity. This administration's actions make the Jimmy Carter administration look strong in comparison.

by: Dave1967 from: Tennessee
June 06, 2014 7:20 AM
It's a crime that our taxes pay for the Pro-Obama drivel played on VOA! Israel is right about the need to do something quickly about Iran's nuclear program. If we don't then it could be a slippery slope to world war 3. Unfortunately Obama doesn't have the spine to take the actions needed and is extremely anti-Israel.

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