Cartoon by Ali Jahanshahi, Shargh daily
WASHINGTON - As a July 20 deadline for a long-term nuclear deal with Iran approaches, there are rumblings again in the US Senate about trying to pass legislation that would threaten Iran with more sanctions.
Senate leadership managed to prevent a vote last year on the bill sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, chairman of the Foreign Relations committee, and Mark Kirk (R-Ill). That helped negotiators reach and implement an interim agreement that significantly constricts Iran’s nuclear program.
An attempt to pass the bill now would send the wrong signal to Iran, which has been scrupulously implementing the interim accord. Why continue to comply with pledges to stop enriching uranium above 5 percent and to convert a stockpile of 20 percent uranium gas to less dangerous forms if the result is more US sanctions? Common sense dictates that punishment should follow, not precede infractions. Pre-emptive threats only strengthen Iranian hardliners who believe that the US objective is regime change, not non-proliferation.
It is, of course, campaign season again in Washington. A third of the Senate seats and all of the House are up for election on Nov. 4. Pandering to lobby groups and big donors is to be expected. But the implications of this legislation for US national interests would be severe.
The sanctions bill, which has reportedly gathered 60 sponsors, has a number of inappropriate provisions. For starters, it tries to dictate the terms of an accord, demanding dismantlement of Iran’s “illicit” nuclear facilities and an end to Iran’s enrichment of uranium.
Rather than push Iran toward compromise as the sponsors of the legislation insist is their goal, these provisions would be deal breakers. The US and the other five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have already agreed in the interim deal that Iran can have a limited uranium enrichment program commensurate with its civilian needs and under strict international supervision. There can be arguments over the number of centrifuges Iran should be allowed to operate but no enrichment is not an option.
There are other troubling elements in the bill. It requires the president to certify that Iran has not conducted any tests of ballistic missiles with ranges longer than 500 kilometers and that Iran has not been involved - directly or indirectly - in any terrorism against the United States. As important as they issues are, they are not part of the nuclear negotiations and in the words of former Senate staffer Edward Levine move the “goalposts” to an accord.
Equally if not more disturbing, the bill gives a seeming green light to a pre-emptive Israeli military strike on Iran by stating that it is the sense of Congress that if Israel feels compelled to attack Iran’s nuclear program, the US should provide Israel with “military support.” President Obama has promised to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons but has discouraged unilateral action by Israel.
Clearly, Obama and Congress are not on the best terms these days and Republicans are looking for new battles with the White House as the controversies over health care and even the deaths of Americans in Benghazi in 2012 begin to fade. But the Iran negotiations provide a realistic prospect of staving off a potential Iranian nuclear weapon for another decade or more and legislators should give the administration a chance to conclude and implement an agreement. That includes an extra six months for the interim accord, should talks fail to conclude by July 20.
If the talks break down, the onus should be on Tehran, not Washington. A key reason why Iranians are seriously negotiating now is because of unprecedented multilateral sanctions imposed in response to its nuclear advances and the provocative rhetoric of its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That sanctions regime is likely to break down if negotiations are perceived as failing because of unreasonable US actions and demands. The US could then impose new sanctions but they would not have much impact if Europe and the rest of the world do not follow.
Military action is also not the solution. It would bring more instability to an already blood-soaked region and not benefit US allies including Israel and Saudi Arabia. A recent poll conducted in seven Arab nations showed strong support for a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear program and rejection of US military action even in Syria.
US popularity, while still below 50 percent in Arab countries, has begun to rise. James Zogby, head of the organization that conducted the poll, attributed the results to a “softer [US] footprint, the result not so much of actions we’ve committed than actions we’ve avoided.”
Congress would do well to absorb the lessons of past mistakes in dealing with the region - i.e. Iraq -- and listen to their constituents, not just those with the best organization and deepest pockets. A diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue is far better than the alternatives and Congress - if it can’t promote such a solution - should at least not prevent one.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America. (see more of Barbara Slavin's columns)
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