In recent years arms control and nonproliferation advocates have consistently, and I believe correctly, supported the use of sanctions to pressure Iran on its nuclear program. The US policy of gaining UN Security Council support for targeted sanctions and coordinating with European allies to impose additional economic pressures has been a significant diplomatic achievement. That policy now appears to be bearing fruit in the conciliatory gestures the new government of Iran is reportedly offering at the Geneva talks.
Some in Congress now want to impose additional punitive sanctions, which are unnecessary and could scuttle a diplomatic process that is just beginning to show promise. Punishing Iran for coming to the table would only strengthen the hand of Iranian hardliners who view negotiations with the United States as fruitless.
The appropriate strategy now is to offer partial relief from sanctions as an incentive to encourage Iranian concessions. The record of previous sanctions-based diplomacy shows that economic pressures work best in combination with incentives as part of a bargaining dynamic to reach diplomatic agreement. Economic and security inducements have been decisive in most nonproliferation successes. A purely punitive approach to sanctions does not work. Combining sanctions with incentives is necessary to achieve diplomatic success.
The offer of sanctions relief could take the form of a suspension of financial sanctions on non-military commerce with Iran. The suspension would last initially for six months but would be renewable if Tehran follows through with its proposals to limit nuclear production and enrichment and allow more intrusive international inspection.
The advantage of suspending sanctions is that it allows for quickly re-activating sanctions if Iran does not reciprocate or attempts to exploit the gesture. Offering sanctions relief now could lock in initial concessions from Iran and build momentum for ongoing negotiations to reach a comprehensive settlement. If Iran fully satisfies the conditions for assuring the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, the US and its partners should be prepared to lift additional non-military sanctions.
More sanctions are not needed because the measures in place are already biting and are having a severe impact on Iran’s economy. These realities no doubt contributed to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s surprise electoral victory in June. His candidacy was based on two main pledges: to overcome economic hardships at home and build constructive relations with the outside world. Mr. Rouhani and his supporters know they cannot achieve these goals without relief from sanctions.
The proposals Iran has apparently offered in Geneva – to partially suspend enrichment and nuclear production activities and accept more rigorous inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – go a long way toward meeting the objectives of UN Security Council resolutions. They represent a significant softening of Iran’s previous position. The logic of diplomacy indicates that when one side compromises, the other side should reciprocate, not escalate.
Some in Washington claim that the price of easing sanctions for Iran must be Tehran’s dismantling major nuclear facilities, including the almost-completed multi-billion-dollar heavy-water reactor at Arak and the underground enrichment site at Fordo. These are unrealistic demands that go well beyond the terms of UN Security Council resolutions. Those resolutions call for greater Iranian cooperation with the IAEA and suspension of enrichment and construction at heavy-water sites, coupled with more rigorous outside verification. In the tradition of Ronald Reagan’s dictum to “trust but verify,” the goal now should be an agreement guaranteeing that these terms are fulfilled.
In an ideal world, yes, the West might wish to see Iran without significant nuclear potential, but that is neither feasible nor necessary in the near term. An agreement that limits Iran’s enrichment and production activities and provides more robust and intrusive monitoring would be a major diplomatic accomplishment and allay fears about an Iranian bomb. This is a deal that members of Congress should endorse. To do so means supporting sanctions relief and deferring the consideration of additional punitive measures.
David Cortright is the director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.