Iran nuclear deal: If Congress plays bad cop, will that help diplomacy?

The Obama administration says it fears additional Iran sanctions could thwart a nuclear deal. But some lawmakers say the White House privately wants Congress to play the bad cop.

Evan Vucci/AP
White House press secretary Jay Carney answers a question during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013. Carney answered questions on negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program.

Is it a good idea or a bad idea for US negotiators to arrive at talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva next week with the US Congress having just approved new sanctions on the Iranian economy?

A growing number of senators and representatives from both parties seem to think more sanctions now is the way to go. A new round of tightening on top of already tough US sanctions, they say, is the best way to convince an economically hurting Iran to not just freeze its nuclear activities but to start dismantling them as part of any initial negotiated deal.

But the Obama administration disagrees, holding that new sanctions risk scuttling any chance of diplomatic success. The US and the international community are tantalizingly close to an interim agreement that would slow Iran’s nuclear progress, administration officials say, allowing time to negotiate a final agreement to verifiably block Iran’s path to ever building a nuclear weapon.

New sanctions now, administration officials are telling Congress, may push Iran away from the negotiating table and ensure that the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program ends in another Mideast war.

New sanctions now risk “getting in the way of diplomacy,” says Secretary of State John Kerry. Speaking with reporters Wednesday outside a closed-door session of the Senate Banking Committee, he said it would better to hold off during the initial talks to see what they can deliver.

“Let’s give them a few weeks, see if it works, and we have all our options at our disposal,” Secretary Kerry said.

At the White House, the threat posed by passing new sanctions now was put in even starker terms.

“The American people do not want a march to war,” spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday, adding that Americans “justifiably and understandably prefer a peaceful solution that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

He then suggested that new sanctions that close off the path to a negotiated settlement would leave few options other than the use of force. “It is important to understand that if pursuing a resolution diplomatically is disallowed or ruled out,” Mr. Carney said, “what options then do we and our allies have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?”

It actually seems unlikely that Congress would approve new sanctions before the next round of talks in Geneva next Thursday, although one way it could happen would be to attach new sanctions to a defense authorization bill set to be taken up next week.

The House passed new sanctions in July, but the Senate has yet to take action on its own proposed legislation. The Banking Committee is considering new measures, which is why Kerry went there Wednesday.

Administration officials were planning Thursday to brief some House leaders and additional members of the Senate on the Geneva talks, which involve Iran and six world powers – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.

But it was clear from comments by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress this week that the administration faces bipartisan skepticism over its Iran strategy.

“We must make it crystal clear to Tehran that even tougher sanctions are coming down the pike if the regime is unwilling to take concrete and verifiable steps to freeze and then dismantle its nuclear weapons program,” Rep. Eliot Engel, Democrat of New York, said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday.

New sanctions now could actually help the American negotiating stance, Representative Engel maintains, by convincing Iran that not acting now guarantees that more economic pain lies ahead.

Some members of Congress even suspect that the administration is privately grateful for the “bad cop” role Congress is playing in the run-up to the resumption of talks next week, as it will allow the US to caution Iran that congressional pressure is only building up.

One member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Virginia Democrat Gerald Connolly, said he thought the administration was crying “crocodile tears” over the prospect of new sanctions.

In the midst of the debate over the pros and cons of approving new sanctions now, some experts are suggesting a third way that could essentially turn new sanctions into both a carrot and a stick in the Geneva talks.

The idea: Congress could go ahead and adopt a new round of sanctions, but agree to hold them in the breast pocket, so to speak, for the six-month period designated for reaching a broader agreement with Iran. Such an approach gives diplomacy the chance that Kerry and others in the administration are asking for, while letting Iran – and Israel and America’s Arab partners – know that more economic pain lies ahead without a deal.  

“There should be no illusion about what happens if diplomacy fails to significantly roll back the Iranian nuclear program,” says Dennis Ross, who was special assistant to President Obama on Iran before leaving the White House in 2011 for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  

Throwing his support behind the third-way option in an opinion piece in the New Republic, Ambassador Ross says approving sanctions but holding off on implementing them would accomplish “signaling the Iranians and everyone else that there will be an intensification of sanctions if the diplomacy fails to produce an end-game agreement.”

At the same time, not implementing them when passed would not “undercut” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, adds Ross, who says the Iranian leader – who won his election this year on a pledge to Iranians to ease their sanctions-induced economic pain – needs more “political space” in order to negotiate a broader agreement.

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