Stay Congressional Sanctions for Now

Congress should forgo enacting any legislation right now regarding enhanced US unilateral sanctions against Iran. Despite Congress’ intent, additional US sanction legislation now might not add pressure to compromise. More likely, I believe, it could persuade Tehran to stop compromising at all. They would calculate no deal is better than negotiating with the American team. Why would they do that?

Iranian negotiators face strong arguments from their own team – led by, but not exclusively, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – that Iran’s nuclear program is not America’s objective. Many conservatives in Iran believe firmly that the US government will stop at nothing short of crushing the Iranian regime through economic pressure and/or political subversion. Threats of physical attack on Iran also add to this narrative.

Sanctions have thus far brought Iran to the bargaining table. But the strongest impacts of sanctions do not come from the United States. They come from the strength of comprehensive international sanctions, especially those in which Iran’s erstwhile friends concur. The unified P5 + 1 (UN Security Council plus Germany) is the diplomatic emblem of that strength. If Congress passes new sanctions legislation now, Iran’s better course of action would to try to break that international unity. If Iran were successful in that tactic, it would almost guarantee what US and Israeli opponents of the interim agreement argue will take place: undermining, perhaps permanently, the international sanctions regime.

How likely is it that Iran would be successful? I don’t know, since I have not seen anything in the US media about the positions of the other P5+1 negotiators, especially on the issue of the Congressional threat. However, I do know that in the 1980s and 1990s, our closest allies – not to mention the USSR and China – were irritated about US unilateral sanctions against Iran, especially those sanctions that ended up targeting our allies. Some doubted our motivations. The US was perceived as a selfish, lone actor, ignoring the counsel and interests of its friends.

We must not return to the days when the US acted alone in trying to impose economic sanctions. Unilateral sanctions are generally feckless; comprehensive, international sanctions are powerful. The proof of that is Iran’s decision finally to compromise. Should arduous, genuine diplomacy at the hands of a unified US-led team fail after several months, that will be the time for new, unified and comprehensive sanctions. Iran desperately needs to avoid that scenario, and frankly its team understands that. Let’s not hand them a win on a silver platter.

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