For years, Iran hawks have argued that only punishing sanctions, combined with the threat of military force, would bring Tehran to the nuclear negotiating table. Finally, Iran is at the table. And for reasons that are alternately inexplicable, presumptuous and bellicose, Iran hawks have decided that now is the moment to slap additional sanctions on the Iranian regime.
The bill before the U.S. Senate, which has 59 co-sponsors at last count, will not achieve the denuclearization of Iran. It will not lead to the defunding of Hezbollah by Iran or to the withdrawal of Iranian support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. What it could do is move the U.S. closer to war with Iran and, crucially, make Iran appear -- even to many of the U.S.'s allies -- to be the victim of American intransigence, even aggression. It would be quite an achievement to allow Iran, the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, to play the role of injured party in this drama. But the Senate is poised to do just that.
I write this as someone with hawkish views about the Iranian nuclear program. Iran is ruled by despots who endorse and fund the murder of innocent people; oppress women, gays and religious minorities in the most terrible ways; and threaten to exterminate a member-state of the United Nations. Some of the “moderates” in the regime are moderate only in comparison to Holocaust-deniers. The regime in Tehran cannot be allowed to cross the nuclear threshold: Israel’s existence is at stake, as is the security of the U.S.’s Sunni Arab friends across the Middle East. The U.S.’s international standing would also be imperiled by a nuclear Iran.
But, at least in the short term, negotiations remain the best way to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. And U.S. President Barack Obama cannot be hamstrung in discussions by a group of senators who will pay no price for causing the collapse of negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1, the five permanent members of the security council, plus Germany. “You have a large group of senators who are completely discounting the views of the administration, the actual negotiators, the rest of the P5 + 1, the intelligence community and almost every Iran analyst on earth,” said Colin Kahl, who, as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East during Obama’s first term, was responsible for preparing all of the options that the President says are still on the table.
If these negotiations were to collapse -- and collapsing the negotiations is the goal of some of the most hawkish hawks -- the most plausible alternative left to stop Iran would be a preventative military strike, either by the U.S. or by Israel (Arab states, which are agitating for an American strike, wouldn’t dare take on the risk of attacking Iran themselves). Such a strike might end in disaster. While it could set back (though not destroy) Iran’s nuclear program, it could also lead to the complete collapse of whatever sanctions remained in place. In addition, it could unify the Iranian people behind their country’s unelected leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- a particularly perverse outcome. And in some ways, an attack would justify Iran’s paranoia and pursuit of nuclear weapons: After all, the regime could somewhat plausibly argue, post-attack, that it needs to defend itself against further aggression. A military campaign should be considered only when everything else has failed, and Iran is at the very cusp of gaining a deliverable nuclear weapon.
As I’ve written before, there is a high likelihood that the negotiations that will soon commence in Geneva will not succeed. It was hard enough for the U.S. and its allies to achieve an interim agreement, an agreement that did not roll back Iran’s program and offered Iran modest sanctions relief. The likelihood that Iran will agree to actually dismantle the most crucial components of its nuclear program -- a key demand of the West -- seems fairly small. Even Obama, who is accused by his critics of being naive and desperate for a deal, put the probability of success at 50-50.
So why support negotiations? First: They just might work. I haven’t met many experts who put the chance of success at zero. Second: If the U.S. decides one day that it must destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, it must do so with broad international support. The only way to build that support is to absolutely exhaust all other options. Which means pursuing, in a time-limited, sober-minded, but earnest and assiduous way, a peaceful settlement.
A peaceful settlement that substantially denuclearizes Iran will be harder to achieve if these Senate sanctions pass. Iranian leaders say they will quit these talks if additional sanctions are enacted. I don’t quite believe that -- the regime has agreed to negotiations not because it wants to give up its nuclear ambitions, but because it needs sanctions relief in order to revive its economy. It will be difficult for Iran to quit these negotiations entirely. However, precipitous Senate action will embolden Tehran’s hardliners, buttressing their “Great Satan” narrative. Kahl said that Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would find themselves in a corner: “Even if the talks don’t collapse, Rouhani and Zarif will have to bargain and negotiate with even more toughness because they will have to defend themselves against hardliners who will argue that they got suckered.”
The most dangerous consequence of these Senate sanctions would manifest itself in places such as Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul and New Delhi. In order to work, sanctions must have the support of the world’s main industrial powers. If countries such as China and India decide that the U.S. is making a concerted attempt to subvert negotiations, their enthusiasm for sanctions will wane dramatically.
The time may come when additional sanctions are necessary -- say, after six months of fruitless negotiations (six months, it should be noted, during which Iran will be closely monitored to ensure that it has kept its nuclear program frozen). At a certain point, two or three months from now, it may become obvious that the talks are destined to fail, at which point more sanctions would be appropriate. But for now, new sanctions, just as negotiations are starting, would be provocative and escalatory and would undermine the administration’s attempt to denuclearize Iran without going to war.