When a group of Senators introduced new sanctions legislation just weeks after the U.S. signed an interim deal with Iran explicitly committing not to pass new sanctions, it became clear that our diplomats’ greatest challenge may not be getting a final deal with Iran, but rather getting a final deal with Congress.
The effort to pass new sanctions is not a mere difference of opinion on what are the best diplomatic tactics. It is a full scale assault on the notion that we should be engaging in diplomacy in the first place. You can’t be for diplomacy and also for blowing up the talks.
Thankfully, once Senators started reading the sanctions bill and realizing its consequences, the effort gained no new supporters and has been put on ice. But instead of wasting weeks debating whether or not to violate the interim Iran deal with sanctions, Washington should have been focused on the real issue: how and when do we trade in the existing sanctions for a final nuclear deal?
The new sanctions effort was not just an attempt to renege on the deal, it was an attempt by sanctions hawks to renege on the stated rationale behind the sanctions — that sanctions were only intended as a form of diplomatic leverage to compel Iran to change its behavior in exchange for having the sanctions lifted.
Meeting Iran’s change in behavior by piling on more sanctions would have sent the opposite message — the message that Iranian hardliners claim is the real American agenda: that the U.S. seeks only to keep Iran weak and will never relinquish the sanctions no matter what Iran does.
Instead of feeding into that narrative, we must do the opposite and make our offer of sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions credible. This is where the real problem lies: while the president is empowered to conduct U.S. foreign policy, it is Congress who has legislated the sanctions into law and who holds the keys for lifting those sanctions. For most sanctions, the president has only modest authority to waive them on a temporary basis.
That Congress would waste months considering new sanctions undermines the credibility of U.S. negotiators going into the talks — if the U.S. would consider torpedoing an interim deal that merely called for Congress to not pass new sanctions, how will Congress ever deliver on the terms of a final agreement that would require lifting sanctions?
That is why Congress and the president must work together to ensure our diplomats have full credibility to offer real sanctions relief to get a strong nuclear deal. Congress should provide the president with this authority. If the president does not have this authority, and relies solely on executive orders and temporary waivers, the Iranians are unlikely to to trade in anything beyond temporary, reversible concessions. Any nuclear deal will be weak and fragile, and will likely go the way of the Kyoto Protocol, the Mexico City Policy or any other initiatives led solely by the executive that quickly evaporated once the sitting president was no longer holding the pen.
Originally published in U.S. News.