The interim accord between Iran and the P5+1 reached in November is moving forward, but that hasn’t stopped members of Congress, the Israel lobby and the usual neoconservative suspects from trying to overturn it—especially via the imposition of new economic sanctions. Because the enactment of new sanctions against Iran is virtually certain to overturn the accord and cause Iran to withdraw from the agreement, it’s hard to explain the effort as anything but a deliberate effort by anti-Iran hardliners to blow up the agreement—even though they say, disingenuously, that they believe that increasing pressure on Iran now will force Iran to suspend its nuclear program.
As for the interim accord itself, well, things are fine. According to Press TV, the Iranian news service, Iran and the P5+1 will remain in regular contact for the first three weeks of January, until the projected start date for the actual implementation of the November 2013 accord on January 20. That’s the date on which Iran is supposed to begin carrying out the technical measures to fulfill the November accord, in which Tehran agreed to halt enrichment of uranium to the 20 percent purity level, suspend work at its Arak heavy water reactor and allow more complete inspections of its facilities. Iran also agreed to limit its stockpile of uranium enriched to fuel-grade, 3-5 percent purity. On that front, according to both Iranian and US officials, initial preparations are going well.
But that hasn’t stopped key members of Congress, including Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), from drafting a wrecking-ball piece of legislation, cosponsored by twenty-six senators, to intensify sanctions. Menendez, a top Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is being opposed by a phalanx of other Democrats, who’ve urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not to allow the Menendez-Kirk “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act” to come to a vote. (The November interim accord explicitly forbids new sanctions during the talks, and President Obama is certain to veto such legislation, although anti-Iran bills over pass with overwhelming, veto-proof majorities.) In their letter, however, ten Democratic Senate committee chairs told Reid, “At this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail.”
There’s plenty of intelligent commentary on why the sanctions bill is a bad idea, starting with Colin Kahl—a former Obama administration official at the Department of Defense—writing in The National Interest. Kahl notes that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, elected in June, is quietly building a national consensus inside Iran in support of a lasting accord with the United States and the West, and Kahl argues that new sanctions would upset the apple cart. He says:
The Senate bill could also lead to provocative Iranian counter-reactions at an extraordinarily delicate moment for diplomacy. Indeed, nearly one hundred hardline Iranian parliamentarians have already drafted legislation that would mandate escalating enrichment to the nearly-bomb-grade 60 percent level if more U.S. sanctions are imposed. Given thirty-five years of distrust between Tehran and Washington, it would not take much perceived bad faith by either party to reverse the modicum of confidence built at Geneva. It is difficult to imagine negotiations surviving such a tit-for-tat retaliatory cycle.