The debate in the United States over the past few weeks on the Iranian nuclear issue has been focused primarily – indeed, almost exclusively – on one thing only: The fate of sanctions legislation circulating in Congress. This legislation's new sanctions would only be triggered if Iran does not uphold the interim deal, or does not move to a comprehensive deal.
- Slandering senators as warmongers
- U.S. Senate sanctions bill is all about torpedoing a nuclear deal with Iran
- International Elders in Tehran to 'advance openness and dialogue'
- Obama vows to veto Congressional action on new Iran sanctions
- Iranian bank sues U.K. for $4b over sanctions
- Diplomats: Iran complying with landmark nuclear agreement
- Caution and skepticism as Iran nuclear talks resume in Vienna
Despite this, the White House has framed the debate as one that pits ‘diplomacy’ against ‘war’. It has been equating Congressional support for more leverage in the next stage of negotiations with Iran as a call for war, and Democratic Senators that support the legislation have been denounced as warmongers.
But there is shaky ground beneath the administration’s fixation on rejecting sanctions legislation. A single intelligence report from December 2013 has been quoted as the evidence that supports the administration’s position: More sanctions will end negotiations.
Why? Well it seems that the reason is because the Iranians have said so. In particular, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif. This is the same foreign minister who, two weeks ago, put a wreath on the grave of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, responsible for the deaths of several hundred Americans in Lebanon in the 1980s, and who last week complained in an interview that the U.S. has mischaracterized the concessions made by Iran in the interim deal on dismantling centrifuges.
Still, the U.S. – who until now was steadfastly advocating that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table – is now taking its cue from Iran on a legislative measure intended to strengthen its hand ahead of the next round of negotiations. How can it come as any surprise that Iran would emphatically claim that any new sanctions legislation will kill negotiations? This is a logical Iranian tactical bargaining position; the only question is why the United States would adopt this narrative as its own.
If it were based on popular opinion, the legislation could very well pass: A recent poll shows that a clear majority of the American public supports sanctions legislation.
But the bigger problem is that the sanctions debate has become an exclusive focus, almost an end in itself, with the effect of precluding necessary discussion on the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) itself.
Indeed, attention to America's internal debate comes at the cost of playing down or ignoring altogether Iran’s reaction to the deal, and, most importantly, the new nuclear realities that are already being established on the ground. These are going ahead even though the deal was only meant to “freeze” the situation and allow time for further negotiations. While the administration has been hailing the new Iranian cooperation and the halt of enrichment to 20 percent, much more serious issues – such as Iran’s belief that the interim deal grants it an unfettered right to continue work on any aspect of research and development of more and more advanced generations of centrifuges, and continued work related to the Arak facility – barely find their way into media reports and commentary.
Of course, the problem with the leverage available to the P5+1 states in the talks with Iran relates not only to sanctions legislation, but also to the sanctions relief for Iran, a snowball that is already rolling as part of the interim deal.
Moreover, the claim that “if Iran cheats, sanctions will be reimposed” ignores the unfolding dynamic of how Iran has been able to maneuver in these negotiations for over a decade. Iran will probably never let a clear case of violation be determined – indeed, because everything will turn on interpretation, Iran will strongly resist any attempt to claim it has cheated. And with Iran part of the very Joint Commission to be set up as part of the JPA to oversee compliance, the chances of determining that it has not upheld the deal are obviously even lower still.
Of perhaps greater concern is the growing sense that the U.S. – and the P5+1 as a group – do not really want to find Iran in noncompliance with the deal. It is their keen desire that negotiations continue, no matter what. Therefore, like a chorus, they are all emphasizing what a positive development the JPA is, and how a path has now been established for moving forward to a final deal.
It would be well to note the bizarre juxtaposition of Rohani’s public pronouncements at the recent Davos summit. His speech there proclaimed the gospel of "constructive engagement" and the need to "transform animosities into friendship" as Iran opens its doors to lucrative energy deals. But in a separate interview to CNN he stated that there will be absolutely no dismantling of Iran's enrichment capabilities in the context of a comprehensive deal. The P5+1, by the way, seem to think there is a need to dismantle something around the order of 15,000 centrifuges.
The P5+1 should be keeping their eyes firmly on the real action - what Iran is doing to push its interpretation of the JPA, to insult and embarrass the other side, and to ensure that the critical elements of its nuclear program – that will enable breakout to military nuclear capability – remain firmly in place. All the while, Iran will be trying to maneuver its way to getting as much sanctions relief as possible.
Dr. Emily B. Landau is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). She is the author of "Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation" (2012).