For all the problems with the new push for sanctions against Iran in the U.S. Senate, one is hardly new: the growing efforts to place limits on the president’s authority to lift sanctions.
Increasingly, Congress has circumscribed the executive’s negotiating leverage by providing only limited authorities for the president to waive sanctions, upping the political cost of doing so, and requiring Congress’s approval before any permanent sanctions relief is granted.
Some in Congress see this ploy as part of the good cop bad cop routine, arguing that President Obama will be able to strike a harder bargain if Iran’s negotiators see what awaits the collapse of negotiations. But in this case, limiting the president’s authority to lift sanctions actually weakens the leverage of U.S. negotiators. It is a simple contract dilemma: if one party is perceived to have difficulties in holding up their end of the bargain, the other party can raise the cost of performance to cover that risk.
Consider the process of securing a bank loan: the worst way to negotiate good terms would be to damage your credit rating and signal that you are unlikely to be able pay down your commitment. Similarly, by withholding the powers to lift the sanctions from the President, Congress is sending U.S negotiators into the next phase of negotiations with a poor credit score. While U.S. diplomats are seasoned enough to secure a deal between the P5+1 and Iran, the uncertainty over whether Obama can deliver on its pledges enables Tehran to demand tougher terms than would otherwise be possible. And, so long as the repeal or termination of sanctions is contingent on a Congress that much of the world views as hostile to a negotiated solution, we can expect Iran to strike a hard bargain.
Congress’s efforts are particularly frustrating because the United States actually does have significant leverage. The potential for Iran to rejoin and reintegrate with the global economic and financial system after decades of relative isolation is an enticing prospect for Tehran – especially for Iran’s technocratic elite, of which President Hassan Rouhani is a part. Since the 1990s, this faction in Iran’s domestic politics has sought to restructure Iran’s economy away from the bazaar and towards the rest of the world. The temptation of a globally integrated economy, with Iran establishing itself as a beachfront for technological innovation and ingenuity, may well outweigh the dubious benefits of an industrial-scale civilian nuclear program with little practical benefit.
However, while the United States holds this card, it can play it only insofar as Iran has confidence in the White House’s ability to follow through on any deal. This is negotiation, after all, not commandeering, and the United States will only be able to get what it gives. If Congress is interested in enhancing President Obama’s leverage to secure a strong deal that curbs Iran’s nuclear program and ensures Iran remains on the right side of the nonproliferation line, it should provide him full authority not just to waive but to lift sanctions completely as part of the diplomatic process. This means credibly signaling to Iran and the international community that our diplomats do indeed hold the keys to welcome Iran into the global community should sufficient concessions be forthcoming.
Ultimately, at a time when Iran’s leadership has signaled full support for its own negotiators, it would be lamentable if Congress failed to do the same for our own.
(This article originally appeared in CNN)