With nuclear negotiations set to resume on Thursday in Geneva between Iran, the United States and their negotiating partners, recent signs of progress have raised expectations for a breakthrough to long-stalled negotiations. While the outcome of these negotiations is still uncertain, it appears that Iran is willing to curb its enrichment program and enhance transparency in exchange for sanctions relief. Such a deal would alleviate international concerns regarding the intent of Iran’s nuclear program and forestall war.
However, it appears that many in the US Congress are determined to undermine the negotiations by pushing new sanctions forward. Knowing that new Congressional sanctions could sabotage diplomacy, the administration has sent Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry and Treasury Secretary Lew to Capitol Hill to warn Senators to hold off. As Wendy Sherman, America’s lead nuclear negotiator, has warned “we think that this is a time for a pause to see if these negotiations can gain traction.”
Ignoring the advice of our top diplomats and those privy to the negotiating process, Senator Kirk of Illinois has indicated that “now is a time to strengthen” sanctions. He is not alone. Senator Rubio of Florida has indicated that he would reject any agreement with Iran to suspend or cancel additional sanctions “unless they agree to abandon nuclear enrichment entirely.”
As well-intentioned as these Senators may be, their arguments are based on the false premise that sanctions and the threat of military force have convinced the Iranian regime to come to the table. They, therefore, erroneously conclude that additional sanctions will force Iran to capitulate on its nuclear program. However, the track record of sanctions belies that notion. Despite a sanctions regime that has evolved over the last decade into what many consider the most severe sanctions ever imposed on a country, Iran has significantly increased both the quantity and the quality of its enrichment activities: starting with a few somewhat unsophisticated centrifuges in 2003, it now has at least 19,000 –including 1,000 of a more efficient, advanced design.
The argument that sanctions have forced Iran to the negotiating table ignores the Iranian regime’s motives for both its enrichment activities and its recent diplomatic engagement.
Despite its continuing nuclear progress, US and Israeli intelligence agencies assert that Iran’s leadership has not made a decision to weaponize its nuclear program. Further, after three decades of enrichment activities, Iran has yet to produce a single kilowatt of nuclear-generated power. Why has Iran pursued such a costly program? The most likely answer is national pride. Despite all of the sanctions, Iran has demonstrated its ability to master enrichment technology. This resoluteness in asserting independence and national pride has trumped all other considerations, including the huge costs of the policy. Had it not been for the growing discontent of the Iranian people following the disputed 2009 election and continuing regional strife, including the coup in Egypt, the Iranian regime would not have changed course. Those events amounted to a wake-up call for the regime and forced it to move closer to the will of its people.
Carefully calculating its moves, the regime chose not to interfere with the outcome of the presidential elections, allowing the more moderate Rouhani to assume power with a mandate to obtain sanctions relief through negotiations. To the dismay of hardliners, the Supreme Leader has thrown his support behind Rouhani’s diplomatic engagement. However, the hardliners are exacting a price for their impatient acquiescence, ramping up demonstrations on the anniversary of the hostage crisis and continuing to trample on Iranians’ human rights.
As soon as the West miscalculates, most likely in the form of new sanctions, the hardliners will be ready to pounce and shut the door to diplomacy, eliminating any off-ramps to war. With consequences that would engulf the entire region, neither Iran, the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia can afford such an outcome. The reform movement within Iran would also be dealt a crushing defeat from which it might never recover.
To avoid such a catastrophe, the US Congress needs to provide political space for negotiations. Congress will have ample time to evaluate any possible agreements that emerge, but it should avoid making any provocative moves that the Iranian hardliners are hoping for. While hardliners in Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US will do their usual hyperventilating, the adults in Congress must set a more moderate tone and steer the country away from a disastrous war.
Ali Fatemi is Professor and the past chairman of the Department of Finance at DePaul University.
(This article originally appeared in Chicago Sun-Times)