Back in May, I wrote that Congress was kicking off a “long, hot, summer of new Iran sanctions.” Now, just over 2 months later, the sticky heat here in DC has broken a bit – and enthusiasm for revitalizing diplomacy with Iran is growing, although the House of Representatives, at least, seems bent on strengthening sanctions.
Congress has started to exhibit some welcome skepticism about whether it is wise to keep ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran no matter what. The shift in attitudes is a result of the election of Dr. Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s next President. Rouhani is widely seen as a more moderate figure who may well be more open to favorable discussions with the West.
In particular, two recent developments paint an encouraging portrait of a shift in thinking.
Most notable was a letter sent to President Obama from 131 members of Congress urging him to use Rouhani’s arrival as an opening to reinvigorate stalled diplomacy. While the bipartisan letter, spearheaded by Rep. David Price and Rep. Charlie Dent, did not explicitly take a position on sanctions, it is fair to infer that the signatories are mindful of the risk that the current pressure-heavy policy may close out future avenues for diplomacy.
In addition to Congress, the White House may also be starting to reevaluate its tough stance: the Obama administration recently eased restrictions on medical, humanitarian, and agricultural transactions with Iran by making it easier to receive a waiver on sanctions. According to the Wall Street Journal, this was seen as a gesture of goodwill by many, especially given that the Obama administration is loath to ease sanctions for fear of looking unserious about the Iranian threat.
So while sanctions have, for years, been the foreign policy tool of choice when it comes to Iran, there seems to be a widespread rethink about how to adjust this policy in light of Rouhani’s victory.
The reason this is notable is because a key criticism of existing Iran policy has been precisely that sanctions haven’t been adjustable. On this blog, for instance, we’ve argued that the desire to sanction Iran should take into account concerns about poor timing, and that sanctions should be imposed in a way that allows them to be calibrated to incremental steps by Iran, rather than rigidly linked to unlikely markers of progress. Because they are both politically sacrosanct and logistically complex, sanctions have become rigid instruments unable to respond to shifts in the political landscape – even though, to be truly effective, that is precisely what they must do.
All this is to say that the recent willingness to re-assess policy in the wake of a potentially positive shift in the US-Iran relationship is a very, very good thing. As Joel Rubin of the Ploughshares Fund and formerly of the State Department wrote last week, “The startling changes in both of our country’s political environments, after each country’s elections, therefore provide a new window of opportunity for nuclear negotiations that must be tested.”
It’s true: Rouhani’s election and the subsequent positive signals from the U.S. amount to a rare opening in a tense relationship with increasingly higher stakes. This means that now is the time to tread carefully, rather than reinforce suspicions that the recent overtures are all smoke and mirrors.
That’s why a tough new sanctions bill, likely to be debated this week in the House of Representatives, is such a dangerous step backwards. H.R. 850, or the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act, would tighten sanctions on Iran in a number of ways. Most importantly, it would encourage countries to reduce purchases of Iranian oil by a total of 1 million barrels a day – which is tantamount to an oil embargo, because Iran currently exports roughly this amount per day (this is the part of the bill that will be most controversial with U.S. allies, who worry about the economic impact of taking Iranian oil off the market). Other trade restrictions in the bill would move the international community closer to a de facto embargo on Iranian trade, something that hawks have long been pushing for. The bill would also put further restrictions on the ability of the President to waiver sanctions, an ability that has thus far been a key provider of flexibility within an otherwise rigid sanctions regime.
Thus, the bill threatens not only to send a hugely symbolic signal of hostility to Iran at a time that Tehran is undergoing major political change, but also to fracture a relatively successful international consensus on Iran policy and to undermine President Obama’s ability to make sanctions into a more flexible tool.
There’s another reason that undue pressure from the U.S. is a particularly bad idea right now: the amount of leeway that Rouhani will have to influence the outcome of upcoming negotiations is still very much up in the air, and could depend greatly on the signals that Iran gets from the West. H.R. 850 and the tough new sanctions it would impose could send a strong negative message, one that threatens to drown out the Price-Dent letter and the White House’s recent move. As three experts recently wrote in an op-ed criticizing the poor timing of the sanctions bill,
“Such a vote will be seized upon by hardliners in Iran who were routed in recent elections in part because of their “resistance-only” approach to negotiations. These hardliners will cite the new sanctions vote as a proof that the U.S. is not interested in negotiating and that professing willingness for compromise only invites further sanctions from the U.S.”
On the other hand, positive signals indicating Western interest in serious negotiations might give political credibility to Rouhani and like-minded cohorts, who could use that capital to bring some key concessions to the negotiating table in upcoming months.
It might seem odd that Congress is simultaneously sending letters urging re-energized engagement while passing bills to punish Iran even further. And it is. In yet another signal that the pro-sanctions consensus in Congress is cracking, some House members have caught onto this contradiction, and are circulating a letter urging colleagues to hold off on H.R. 850. It’s also worth noting that the Senate, which was originally set to match H.R. 850 with a tough sanctions bill of its own, has not gone through with drafting a new round of penalties, and won’t do so for a few months now (though the exact reason for holding off is unclear).
But beyond that, the mixed signals out of Congress are probably just an indication of the fact that for too long, the U.S. has assumed that there is no tension between punitive sanctions and diplomacy. As Laicie and I pointed out in an article in June, however, there are a number of subtle ways in which over-doing sanctions can actually take the sails out of diplomatic efforts.
That’s exactly what is at risk with this poorly timed new House bill. Over the weekend, the Financial Times’ editorial board argued that new sanctions would have little utility because “The current sanctions regime is effective enough to be forcing a serious policy rethink in Iran.” This gets to the heart of the point: new sanctions like the ones being considered today in the House won’t add anything that existing penalties haven’t already achieved, but they will send a seriously contradictory and unwelcome message. Passing H.R. 850 would be a significant step back on the eve of an inauguration that has the potential to bring in not just a new Iranian president, but a new era in US-Iran relations.