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These Senators Are About to Blow the World's Best Shot at a Non-Nuclear Iran

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Even before Secretary of State John Kerry announced the seven-month extension of nuclear negotiations between Iran and Western countries, members of Congress were jockeying for new ways to punish Iran for the failure to reach an agreement by the November 24 deadline. Senators Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham tried to pass legislation that would overturn the minimal sanctions relief provided to Iran as part of last year’s interim agreement, while Senators Mark Kirk and Bob Menendez have led the call for new sanctions.

If the intention of these lawmakers is to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, their efforts to add to the already expansive sanctions regime is self-defeating. One year ago Iran and the West’s six-country negotiating team agreed to the Joint Plan of Action (JPA)—which called for Iran to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief and the guarantee that the U.S. would not impose further nuclear-related sanctions. The JPA was designed to build a modicum of trust between Iran and the Western countries while negotiators hashed out a comprehensive agreement. So far all six countries, including Iran, have complied with the JPA. If Congress commits the first violation with new sanctions, Iran could abandon the negotiations and credibly claim it is doing so because the U.S. failed to uphold its end of the deal.

“We’re definitely getting played by the Iranians,” Senator Kirk told Politico, criticizing the extension of the deal for giving Iran “another $5 billion in their coffers to support their nuclear program.” What Senator Kirk is referring to is not new sanctions relief, but a continuation of last year’s deal which allowed for $700 million worth of frozen Iranian assets a month to be released—at the end of seven months, this will amount to $4.9 billion in unfrozen assets. But $5 billion will neither restore the collapsed Iranian economy nor drive their nuclear program forward, as the most impactful sanctions targeting Iran’s oil and banking sectors are still intact.

It is not clear whether Senator Kirk is being intentionally misleading or if he actually believes that modest sanction relief is more likely to lead to a nuclear-armed Iran than the collapse of talks. According to Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, “Iran has rolled back the most proliferation-sensitive elements of its nuclear program for the first time in over a decade. This is huge.” She continued, “In my mind, this shows that Iran is willing to abide by the terms of an agreement and negotiate in good faith.”

Since agreeing to the JPA last year, Iran has halted development of new centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment plant, ceased to produce highly enriched uranium that could be converted into weapon fuel, and allowed inspectors from the UN nuclear watchdog agency daily access to its enrichment facilities at Fordow and Natanz. “All of these measures will continue under the seven month extension,” said Davenport. “If talks fail, Iran could easily ramp up its program and move closer to developing a weapon.”

In addition to removing the framework that has slowed Iran’s nuclear program over the past year, a collapse of negotiations would discredit President Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on fixing Iran’s economy by engaging with the West. Iran is deeply prideful of its nuclear program (which it insists is for civilian purposes), and Rouhani’s push to open the program to Western scrutiny and limitations was a risky political move. He faces considerable opposition from conservatives who say that the U.S. is not interested in peace, but rather in undermining Iran’s influence in the Middle East. New sanctions by the U.S., in violation of the extended JPA, would be easy ammunition for hardline conservatives. It is not in the U.S.’s interest for tough rhetoric to triumph over Rouhani’s promise that engagement with the West is beneficial to Iran. 

Skeptics in the U.S. correctly point to the fact that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, not Rouhani, has final say on all foreign policy decisions, including a nuclear deal. In the lead-up to the November 24 deadline, Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained to the House Foreign Affairs Committee how Iran’s hardliners gain legitimacy through international isolation and cautioned against prematurely applying new sanctions. “A nuclear deal that reduces Iran’s isolation, potentially strengthens moderates at home, and raises popular expectations for further rapprochement with the United States, could be more threatening to regime stability [referring to Ayatollah Khaemenei] than a continued standoff,” he said.

It would be tragically ironic, but not at all surprising, if American lawmakers succeeded in pushing through legislation that discredited the Iranian politicians who seek cooperation with the U.S. and empowered the guy who called negotiations with the Americans “useless.”