Members of the House of Representatives are charging ahead with a vote to increase sanctions on Iran even as experts, their fellow legislators and the Obama administration are doing everything they can to prevent them from destabilizing a delicate and critical juncture in U.S-Iranian diplomacy.
Since the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s next president, the conversation in Washington has been focused on how to react to the most moderate candidate available to the Iranian people winning such a resounding — and unexpected — victory. With Rouhani’s inauguration still days away, the House is heading towards a vote on H.R. 850, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act. Under the bill’s provisions, a near de facto oil embargo would be placed upon Iran, and limit the President’s ability to lift sanctions should any deal with Iran over its controversial nuclear program look likely to succeed.
Experts from across the spectrum dealing with Iran — with backgrounds in the military, diplomacy, academia, and government service — have all insisted that there is now a brief window of time for the U.S. and the Islamic Republic to pursue a deal over that program. Former U.S. ambassadors Thomas Pickering and William Luers with MIT researcher Jim Walsh explained in the New York Review of Books that “the longer real negotiations are delayed, the greater is the risk of conflict in the increasingly violent environment of the Middle East.”
Moving too quickly to impose new sanctions against Iran, however, could cause that window to slam shut. “A vote on H.R. 850 before Rouhani is even inaugurated and the U.S. and its partners are able to test whether Iran’s new president can deliver on his promises would send all the wrong signals,” insisted former CENTCOM Commander Gen. Joseph Hoar, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.), and National Iranian-American Council president Trita Parsi in a recent op-ed. “Such a vote will be seized upon by hardliners in Iran who were routed in recent elections in part because of their ‘resistance-only’ approach to negotiations. These hardliners will cite the new sanctions vote as a proof that the U.S. is not interested in negotiating and that professing willingness for compromise only invites further sanctions from the U.S.”
Pickering, Luers and Walsh agree. “[P]iling on of more coercive sanctions and ultimatums, particularly when there are new hopes for the diplomatic process to get underway, will undermine or even preclude the possibility of negotiating a nuclear deal,” they wrote.
More than a quarter of the House listened to those experts’ voices, signing a letter from Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Charles Dent (R-PA) urging that President Obama “to pursue the potential opportunity presented” by “reinvigorating U.S. efforts to secure a negotiated nuclear agreement.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is circulating a similar letter in the Senate currently, hoping to add her chamber’s weight to the effort. “[W]e believe the U.S. should reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to determine whether Dr. Rouhani is truly willing to engage the international community,” the Feintsein letter reads. “Doing so is the only way to reach a verifiable agreement, including limits on Iran’s enrichment and other sensitive nuclear activities and greater cooperation with the IAEA, that ensures that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.”
The Obama administration appears to be hearing the message as well. Even before Rouhani’s election, Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate panel that Congress needs to “leave us the window to try to work the diplomatic channel.” And just last week the Treasury Department moved to make it easier for medicine and other humanitarian goods to reach Iran, underlining that they are not subject to U.S. sanctions.
The signs from inside Iran itself have also been encouraging. While the foreign policy decision making process within Iran remains more than a little Byzantine, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei making the final calls, Rouhani has been quick to signal his willingness to engage with the international community. Last week the Obama administration reportedly received from Iran an overture, via Iraq’s prime minister, to conduct direct negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program. Rouhani’s choice of former U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif to serve as foreign minister has likewise been seen as an olive branch to the West.
There’s no guarantee that such a push would result in a massive breakthrough in the decades long feud between the two countries. Despite that, the need to push forward with diplomacy is clear. As CAP’s Matt Duss warned in June Rouhani will not immediately capitulate to Western demands in nuclear negotiations, but 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.”
Despite all that, members of the House still seem convinced that now is the time to increase the pressure on Iran, with almost every member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) saying as much in a letter earlier this month. Democrats and Republicans alike are appear to be convinced of the allure sanctions have of being seen as a way to take firm action. “Our efforts on sanctions legislation should not be determined by the Iranian political calendar,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ranking Member of the HFAC, argued at an event on Tuesday. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said much the same in a written statement, declaring that “[t]he ball is in Iran’s court” to change course.
And so H.R. 850 is still careening towards passage, with debate due to begin on Wednesday and a vote likely on Thursday. While its opponents are currently circulating a letter within the House to delay the vote, at present the bill has 376 sponsors meaning any vote on it would likely succeed. While there’s no guarantee that it would pass the upper chamber in September once Congress returns from its August recess, experts have said the optics of Congress moving to punish Iran under Rouhani before he can even take power would not bode well for negotiations.
The letter signed by 16 House members has been released. It says H.R. 850 “threatens to fracture the unprecedented international coalition working to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and further weakens U.S. diplomatic efforts by constraining the President’s authority to utilize sanctions as leverage at the negotiating table.” The letter also says “it would be counterproductive and irresponsible” to vote on the bill before Rouhani’s inauguration, warning that the House “should not preempt a potential opportunity to secure” a diplomatic solution “with another sanctions bill.”
“While we have no illusions about the nature of Iran’s government, Iran’s president-elect has sent several positive signals that must not be rejected out of hand. Returning these signals with a vote on more sanctions can only serve to undermine potential forces for moderation in Iran and empower hardliners who were defeated in recent elections,” the letter states.
The House passed the measure on Wednesday evening by a 400-20 vote. Iran has “a strong case to make that they can’t trust us,” Iran expert Gary Sick told the New York Times. “What the Congress is trying to do is confirm that.”