As Iran installs new leader, House could pass more sanctions. Right signal?

Hassan Rohani, a moderate cleric, is set to take office as Iran’s president on Sunday. Some say new sanctions send the right message about Iran’s nuclear program, while others say they could stifle any improvement in relations.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani, places his hand on his heart as a sign of respect, after speaking at a news conference, in Tehran, Iran, June 17. President Obama said the election of Rohani opened the way to 'a more serious, substantive' relationship with Iran.

When Iran elected a moderate cleric to succeed the fiery Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the country’s president last month, President Obama sought to encourage what some saw as an important political shift by calling for improved US-Iran relations.

Mr. Obama said the election of Hassan Rohani opened the way to “a more serious, substantive” relationship with Iran – interpreted widely as the president’s hope that the United States and Iran might add bilateral negotiations to international talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

But now that Mr. Rohani is about to take office as Iran’s president, some in Congress want to send a different signal to Tehran by approving a new round of sanctions aimed at further stifling the Iranian economy. Rohani is set to be inaugurated Sunday.

Which is the better approach for getting Iran to accept internationally verifiable limits on its nuclear program?

The House is expected to answer that question Wednesday by voting to slap tough new limits on Iran’s already heavily sanctioned oil industry, as well as on other sectors of the ailing Iranian economy.

Yet even though the House measure could not take effect until the Senate can act on its own version of the bill – probably in September – advocates of a more cooperative approach with the new Iranian leadership say the House vote is coming at the wrong time. They worry that any vote in the US for new sanctions would be received in Iran as a slammed door just as Rohani takes office – and would probably snuff out any hope of better US-Iran relations.

A House vote for new sanctions “will be seen as the first formal American response to Rohani’s victory,” says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that advocates improved relations with Iran. Sending such a signal now would be seized upon by Iran’s hard-liners to undercut Rohani’s stated desire for more cooperative engagement with the West, he says, and makes sense only “if the objective is to prevent talks [between the US and Iran] from happening.”

For others, however, now is precisely the time – as Iran anticipates a return to talks on its nuclear program with the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany – to let Iran know that the US and the West are not going to let their guard down.

“The [Obama] administration must go into the next round of negotiations with significant, re-enhanced leverage,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in a recent conversation with reporters.

Advocates of tough new sanctions scoff at the notion that Rohani is a harbinger of a new “moderation” among Iran’s leadership – or that he (or the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) has any intention of dialing back on Iran’s nuclear program. Western powers worry that the program is aimed not at delivering civilian nuclear energy, as Iran claims, but at building a nuclear weapon.

Rohani reinforced the skeptics of his moderation with his own postelection words when he flatly ruled out ending Iran’s uranium enrichment program – the Iranian nuclear activity that worries the West most. “All should know that the next government will not budge defending our inalienable rights,” he said, adding that the days of any suspension of Iran’s program “are behind us.”

For his part, Obama – who came into office as a new president in 2009 with an extended hand to Iran – has taken steps to signal a willingness to engage with Rohani. Last week the administration eased some sanctions on Iran, approving the export of some medical devices as part of an effort to ease restrictions on “legitimate humanitarian trade.”

But Obama has also made it clear that his new tone does not extend to Iran’s nuclear program. Even as he hailed Rohani’s election in June, Obama insisted that the tough sanctions inhibiting Iran’s economy would not be eased “in the absence of significant steps” by Iran to ensure the world that it is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon.

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