Sanctions against Iran - and whether to increase them or ease them - have become a crucial issue as major powers engage Iran in talks over its suspected nuclear weapons program.
With talks proceeding in Geneva, President Barack Obama has asked lawmakers to delay action on new sanctions to give diplomacy a chance.
After a White House meeting Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) said no new legislation will be put to a vote until after the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. Corker and other key leaders of the Senate’s banking, foreign relations, armed services and intelligence committees discussed the issue with Obama.
The sanctions were put in place to pressure Iran to end its uranium enrichment program, which can be used for civilian and military purposes. Tehran says it is not developing nuclear weapons but the United States and the European Union believe otherwise.
Sanctions hurt Iran
Analysts say there is no doubt that, over the past few years, economic sanctions imposed by Western countries and the United Nations have hurt Iran’s economy. Statistics indicate that inflation and unemployment have increased substantially while the value of the country’s currency–the rial–has plummeted. Revenue from oil sales has also decreased dramatically.
As negotiators from six major powers and Iran continue their talks, some U.S. senators are considering harsher sanctions on Iran if it does not curtail its uranium enrichment program. The House of Representatives passed legislation last July imposing stricter measures targeting, among other things, the financial and oil sectors.
The Senate is also expected to discuss the issue of tougher sanctions.
Whether or not to impose harsher sanctions on Iran has fueled a debate among politicians and analysts.
Call for harsher sanctions
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California) recently told other members of Congress he favors tougher action.
“Our sanctions program for the past three years is one of the very few things that our federal government is doing that works," Sherman said. "It’s one of the very few things that is bipartisan. That’s why we need to do more of it, not less.”
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also approved of stronger measures. He spoke during a Nov. 13 session of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives.
“Without new sanctions, American negotiators will likely never again have as much economic leverage over Tehran as they do right now. The impact of European and American sanctions on Iran is what helped to jump start these negotiations,” said Dubowitz. “The efficacy of sanctions depends on the threat of their escalation where an ever expanding web of restrictions keeps foreign firms from doing business with the regime.”
For its part, Iran is looking for substantial relief from crippling international sanctions. Western and Iranian negotiators are discussing ways for Tehran to curtail its uranium enrichment in exchange for easing sanctions.
Jim Walsh, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says additional U.S. sanctions at this time will be a grave mistake.
“It would cripple the ability of the new Iranian team to be able to say credibly to their constituencies back home, ‘Look, things are different, the U.S. is serious, we want to move forward.' I can’t think of a case where there were negotiations where in the middle of negotiations, you slap the other party,” said Walsh. “The hardliners, the principals in Iran are going to say, ‘Look, we told you so. This is all a ruse. They are not serious about negotiations, this is just about imposing sanctions.’”
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, says harsher sanctions now could make a deal with Iran much more difficult to achieve.
“If the U.S. Congress inserts itself into this process and passes additional sanctions legislation, they risk upsetting the process, ruining the chances for a deal and making the likelihood of a conflict with Iran over its nuclear program more likely," Kimball said, "and also extending the time it might take to negotiate a deal which would only enable the Iranians to further improve their nuclear capabilities.”