LEADERS OF the GOP-led Congress — specifically Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — have threatened to impose further sanctions on Iran, tied to that country’s development of nuclear material. New sanctions would be a mistake, undermining the ongoing negotiations and reducing the chances of a final agreement between Iran and the United States and its allies.
Progress in getting Iran to halt its nuclear program has been slow but steady since the signing of an interim agreement in November 2013. Under the terms of that agreement, the Joint Plan of Action, Iran has frozen its nuclear program and converted its stockpile of enriched uranium to a non-weapons-grade form of the mineral, all under the watch of international inspectors. In return, the United States and its allies have offered limited sanctions relief and access to frozen assets. What remains is for an agreement that would guarantee an Iranian nuclear program limited to energy production, and a plan for transparency, allowing continued monitoring by international inspectors.
There’s no downside to letting these negotiations continue unhindered by new sanctions. In fact, one condition of the agreement is that no further sanctions be imposed. Meanwhile, the agreement does allow for new sanctions if Iran is found to be in breach. Add to this the distressed state of the Iranian economy and falling price of oil, and the United States is clearly bargaining from a position of strength. The US should not breach the 2013 agreement by imposing sanctions.
A nuclear-free Iran is key to a more stable Middle East. Ironically, this sworn enemy of the United States now stands, as Stephen Kinzer pointed out in a recent Globe op-ed piece, as “an island of stability in a volcanically unstable region.” Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has spoken openly about Iran scaling back its nuclear goals. “Our cause is not linked to a centrifuge,” he said. Though Rouhani is answerable to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, it’s doubtful negotiations would have gotten this far without some tacit approval from on high.
Obama, of course, can veto a sanctions bill, as he promised to do in his State of the Union address. But, with only two years left in the Obama presidency, a sanctions vote could send the wrong signals to Tehran, and put an agreement in jeopardy. If Iran backs out of talks now, the United States would be in a worse place than before negotiations began: Iran could resume its nuclear program, and the United States would be alienated from its allies. As Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, the United States has nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by imposing further sanctions. Or as, as Obama put it succinctly in the State of the Union, “It doesn’t make sense.”