For the first time in three decades, Iran and the United States appear to have established a meaningful diplomatic relationship that disrupts the cycle of escalation towards armed conflict. The interim agreement reached in Geneva on Saturday freezes much of Iran’s nuclear program and exposes the country to extensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency in exchange for modest relief from some economic sanctions. Ultimately, the deal opens the door for a long-term resolution to derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
This may be the last, best shot for a diplomatic alternative to a nuclear Iran. Before the deal, Iran could have produced weapons-grade fuel in as little as a month. If Iran upholds its end of the bargain it will lose its stocks of uranium enriched above 5 percent, setting its capabilities back. The chance that Iran will renege on the agreement is real—but so is the risk that US lawmakers will undermine it by passing new sanctions.
On Monday, majority leader Harry Reid said the Senate would consider new economic penalties after the Thanksgiving recess. Leading the process will be Senator Tim Johnson, who chairs the Banking Committee with jurisdiction over sanctions, and Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. “They will study this, they will hold hearings if necessary, and if we need work on this, if we need stronger sanctions, I am sure we will do that,” Reid told NPR, adding that the agreement was an “important first step.” Johnson said his committee would hold off from writing new sanctions until after a briefing with Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and other administration officials.
Likely, the sanctions the Senate will consider would go into effect only after the interim agreement expires, should the negotiating parties fail to reach a long-term resolution. “I expect that the forthcoming sanctions legislation to be considered by the Senate will provide for a six-month window to reach a final agreement before imposing new sanctions on Iran,” Menendez said in a statement. That seems consistent with what President Obama has said. “If Iran does not fully meet its commitments during this six-month phase, we will turn off the relief and ratchet up the pressure,” he said Sunday.
Sanctions that allow time for diplomatic negotiations to play out are certainly preferable to the immediate punitive measures that lawmakers were calling for last week, and that hawks like Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Kevin McCarthy are still pushing. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessary, or that they won’t hamstring diplomatic negotiations.
First, is Congress’s appetite for a new round of economic punishment really in doubt? Even without new legislation Iranian leaders can easily suppose what Washington’s response will be if a final deal falls through. Meanwhile, most sanctions remain in place and continue to put crippling pressure not only on Iran’s political class but also on its citizens.
On the other hand, new sanctions could ruin the prospects of a long-term accord, even if their practical effects are delayed. There’s a risk that Congress will demand concessions in the short term beyond the scope of the interim agreement, or use new legislation to try to set the terms of a final deal, which could bind negotiators to unobtainable standards. Perceived as belligerence, and a signal that President Obama cannot obtain Congress’s support for dismantling the sanctions regime in a final deal, such moves will likely undermine Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s ability to sell a long-term agreement to Iran’s political elites.