With President Obama’s Endorsement of Diplomacy, Support for Sanctions Slips

The key message in President Obama’s State of the Union speech earlier this week was that the President is willing to take action this year - with or without the support of a recalcitrant Congress.  While the bulk of his discussion focused on executive action on economic issues, President Obama made it clear that this mindset also applies to Iran, an issue that has embroiled both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue in an ongoing fight over new sanctions and the direction of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

In the speech, President Obama defended his administration’s pursuit of diplomacy with Iran, and told Congress that he would veto new sanctions (in the form of S.1881, sponsored by Senators Kirk and Menendez) while the diplomatic track was being tested. Whether or not his defiant message was intended to put congressional fence-sitters on notice, or to provide political cover to those fence-sitters, or neither, Obama’s speech seems to have spurred a number of Democratic co-sponsors to state that they do not want a vote on the sanctions bill at this time.

Now, thanks to waning support and Majority Leader Harry Reid's unwillingness to bring the bill to the floor, the bill is stalled for the time being.

The slipping support for S.1881 was a remarkable turnaround given that Iran sanctions have enjoyed near unanimous bipartisan support in recent years. The shift was spurred by a combination of pressure from the Obama administration and outside groups that mobilized against the bill, President Obama’s strong opposition as articulated in the State of the Union, and, of course, real results delivered at the negotiation table. It became increasingly hard to argue that new sanctions made sense after it was announced that on January 20, Iran would start to freeze key portions, and roll back the most proliferation sensitive aspects, of its nuclear program as part of the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action.

The sea change suggests a rethinking on Capitol Hill of the relationship between sanctions and diplomacy, which have long been seen as perfectly compatible when it comes to the efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. To be sure, this is true to some extent – sanctions provide, and have provided in this case, leverage that can create diplomatic openings and make negotiations more productive.

But after a certain point, sanctions (even those with a delayed trigger) begin to diminish diplomatic efforts. We’re at such a point right now, and not only because sanctions were explicitly prohibited in the Geneva agreement. Beyond that, imposing sanctions while fruitful negotiations are taking place leads to questions about US good faith and commitment to diplomacy.  Moreover, the progress of negotiations thus far has rested on what Colin Kahl has called an “elite consensus” within the Iranian political system to allow President Rouhani’s moderate government to seek sanctions relief by making nuclear concessions. And finally, sanctions are likely to be perceived by Iran as a hostile move, one that should be responded to in kind – for instance, by escalating nuclear development at a moment when the momentum exists to halt, and hopefully reverse. it. All of this militates against the passage of new sanctions specifically at this time, and the Senators who have come out against S. 1881 seem to be recognizing this logic.

Yet bill supporters continue to argue that sanctions always bolster diplomacy, saying that sanctions with a delayed trigger will serve as a “diplomatic insurance policy” in case negotiations fail. This, however, has been revealed as a canard by our own Ed Levine, who pointed out that rather than being a Plan B if the negotiations fail, sanctions would almost certainly come into effect under S. 1881.  Iran would be hit with new sanctions even if the negotiations succeeded; the only way to keep  the penalties from  coming into effect is for Iran to fulfill a number of unrealistic conditions, such as fully dismantling its nuclear infrastructure, halting ballistic missile testing, and ceasing to be a proxy sponsor of terrorist acts.

While these are all worthy policy objectives, they’re well out of the realm of possibility in the near future. As such, making the current nuclear negotiations contingent on such goals is a fool’s errand, and is likely to put the immediate goal – capping Iran’s nuclear program – further out of reach.

Advocates of more robust diplomacy with Iran have been making these arguments for a long time now. But what’s different now is the traction that these ideas are now getting at the highest levels of government. While the bill may well be resurrected in the coming months, and there’s talk in the other legislative chamber of a potentially worrisome resolution, this week offered reason to be hopeful that the diplomatic track can get the mainstream support it needs to negotiate a realistic, comprehensive and verifiable solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, at least for the next six months.