President Obama and members of Congress in both parties share the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The question is whether to violate the terms of the recently-extended Joint Plan of Action by imposing additional sanctions now. That would be a huge mistake. Listening to Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and others, I’m reminded of the scene in Animal House where Otter decides it’s time for a “really futile and stupid gesture” – and yes, Mark Kirk and the Republicans in Congress are just the ones to make it.
Secretary of State John Kerry is right: “We would be fools to walk away from a situation where the breakout time has already been expanded rather than narrowed, and where the world is safer because this program is in place.” But if we pass new sanctions legislation now, that’s what we’d risk doing.
President Obama and Kerry have repeatedly said that no deal is better than a bad deal. Rather than agree to a bad deal, the United States and its allies agreed to extend the Joint Plan of Action with Iran until June 30, 2015. Under the extension, the same limited, temporary, and reversible sanctions relief continues and Iran’s progress toward developing nuclear weapons capability remains in check.
All remaining U.S. sanctions on Iran remain in effect. So yes, Iran does continue to get some relief, but that’s because we continue to get a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program–and that’s a bargain for us.
The extension of the Joint Plan of Action allows further negotiations without the risk that Iran will run out the shot clock by advancing its nuclear program while the talks continue. Saying that, well we gave diplomacy 12 months, let’s give up on talks, is as silly as saying well, we gave sanctions six years, so let’s give up on sanctions.
Iran is now further away from a nuclear weapon than it was when we entered into the Joint Plan of Action. As Kerry pointed out
One year ago, Iran’s nuclear program was rushing full speed toward larger stockpiles, greater uranium enrichment capacity, the production of weapons-grade plutonium, and ever shorter breakout time. Today, Iran has halted progress on its nuclear program and it has rolled it back for the first time in a decade.
A year ago, Iran had about 200 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium in a form that could be quickly enriched into a weapons-grade level. Today, Iran has no such 20 percent enriched uranium – zero, none – and they have diluted or converted every ounce that they had and suspended all uranium enrichment above 5 percent.
A year ago, Iran was making steady progress on the Arak reactor, which, if it had become operational, would have provided Iran with a plutonium path to a nuclear weapon. Today, progress on Arak, as it is known, is frozen in place.
A year ago, inspectors had limited access to Iran’s nuclear program. Today, IAEA inspectors have daily access to Iran’s enrichment facilities and a far deeper understanding of Iran’s program. They have been able to learn things about Iran’s centrifuge production, uranium mines, and other facilities that are important to building trust. That’s how you build trust, and that’s why Iran made the decision to do it. And they’ve been able to verify that Iran is indeed living up to its JPOA commitments.
But how can we evaluate the progress we’ve made when the negotiations are cloaked in secrecy? Kerry reminds us that the U.S. and its allies
have earned the benefit of the doubt at this point. Many were quick to say that the Joint Plan of Action would be violated; it wouldn’t hold up, it would be shredded. Many said that Iran would not hold up its end of the bargain. Many said that the sanctions regime would collapse. But guess what? The interim agreement wasn’t violated. Iran has held up its end of the bargain, and the sanctions regime has remained intact.
And now many of those same people want to ratchet up sanctions at the worst possible time.
More sanctions now would make a nuclear-armed Iran more likely. This debate is not about sanctions. Sanctions are in place now. Even with the limited, temporary, reversible sanctions relief, sanctions are hurting Iran’s economy. The sanctions relief is incenting Iran to freeze its program; the remaining sanctions are incenting Iran to negotiate an agreement.
Imposing new sanctions now would effectively derail negotiations and would violate the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, thus leading to Iran either breaking its commitments or walking away. The effectiveness of sanctions depends on international cooperation. If we impose new sanctions while Iran is still honoring its commitments, it is unlikely our allies would join us and the entire sanctions architecture could unravel.
The problem with Kirk-Menendez and similar legislation is that it
threatens the diplomatic opportunity to rein-in Iran’s nuclear capabilities, it would contradict the commitments made by the United States–to both Iran and our P5+1 negotiating partners–to refrain from approving further sanctions legislation, and, most significantly, could push Iran to pull out of the deal and allow it to continue advancing its nuclear program without restrictions.
Sanctions alone did not stop Iran from moving forward. Sanctions did bring Iran to the table, but guess what? They are at the table. More sanctions can’t bring them more to the table. There is no upside to more sanctions, only significant downside.
BloombergView outlines the alternatives to President Obama’s approach, and the alternatives are not good:
The alternatives to Obama’s sanctions-plus-diplomacy approach are two: sanctions alone, or airstrikes. Neither of these would end Iran’s nuclear-weapons program for good. On the contrary, they would probably accelerate Iran’s bid for the bomb and undermine critical support for sanctions in Europe.
So long as Iran sticks to the restrictions on its enrichment program, and the current sanctions remain in place, there is no hurry to end this negotiating process. What matters is getting the right deal. Iran’s nuclear program is largely frozen. At the same time, Iranian society is gradually becoming among the least religious and least anti-American in the Middle East. Yes, the conservative regime remains hostile and committed to creating a nuclear weapons capability. Yet it also needs a deal to keep its growing consumer society happy.
At best, a little posturing from newly empowered Republicans in the U.S. Congress may push the negotiating process along. But ultimately, everyone will be better off if hawks in Washington and Tehran alike stay out of the way.
We are on the right track. If this extension leads to an agreement, it will be a huge win. If it doesn’t, we will be no worse off, and probably better off, than we are now. Let’s not blow it with emotionally satisfying but counterproductive additional sanctions legislation. If you feel strongly that Iran must be prevented from acquiring a nuclear weapon, you should strongly oppose the new sanctions legislation advocated by Sen. Kirk and others.
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