Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Jim McDermott (D-WA) co-authored an op-ed published in Politico on Monday arguing that now is the time for President Obama and Congress alike to change the conversation on Iran. “Reinvigorated diplomatic engagement remains the best option to achieve two goals that are critical for U.S. interests in the Middle East: preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and preventing a military strike against the country that could escalate to a wider war,” they write.
The election of Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate candidate allowed to run, as Iran’s next president allows for cautious optimism about the future of the Islamic Republic’s relations with the West. As the two lawmakers point out, Rouhani campaigned on a platform of improving ties with the West, a platform that caused him to win a decisive first-round victory.
To facilitate this shift, Ellison and McDermott put forward three proposals that taken together they hope will allow for a possible breakthrough in diplomacy with Iran. The first would be for Secretary of State John Kerry to lift the “no contact policy” that has held sway for decades at Foggy Bottom. Under the policy, in place since shortly after the Iranian revolution in 1979, American diplomats are barred from meeting and interacting with their Iranian counterparts except under very specific circumstances and pre-authorization from the State Department. Even then, these discussions usually take place through intermediaries as seen in the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany) talks over Iran’s nuclear program.
Second, the op-ed calls for Washington to directly negotiate with Iran over the wide range of outstanding issues that complicate the U.S.-Iranian relationship. Fox News reported on July 4 that State Department spokesman Alan Eyre had indeed extended an olive branch to Tehran in an interview with an Iranian state-run media outlet. While the original interview has been taken down, the State Department confirmed that Eyre had proposed bilateral talks based on “mutual respect” between Tehran and Washington.
“We hope the Iranian government will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program,” Fox News quotes Eyre as saying. “We and our international partners remain ready to engage directly with the Government of Iran.”
Ellison and McDermott also warn that “[i]t would be a mistake to impose new sanctions on Iran before giving Rouhani the chance to put his words into action”:
Additional sanctions now would offend the majority of voters who chose moderation over extremism and could jeopardize a crucial opening for moderate Iranian leaders. The message to them would be that no matter what you do, the United States will respond only with more crippling pressure. The message to them would be that no matter what you do, the United States will respond only with more crippling pressure. If that is the idea conveyed, Tehran would have little incentive to come to the negotiating table and more reason to advance its nuclear program.
To that end, they propose that rather than continue to focus almost solely on expanding the unilateral sanctions the United States continues to levy on Iran, that Congress extend its debate to include discussions of human rights and advancing diplomacy.
To bring about a greater balance, they propose that Congress create a position of “special envoy to lead bilateral and multilateral negotiations with Tehran,” to strengthen the two-track policy of sanctions and diplomacy. At present, the House and Senate alike are considering bills that would ratchet up sanctions even further, at a time when experts are calling for a pause in further escalation. CAP’s Matt Duss after Rouhani’s election warned that while the President-elect will not immediately yield to Western demands in nuclear negotiations, the one thing that could “dramatically undermine the potential for such progress would be yet another round of punishing measures from the U.S. Congress.”