Congress’s Sanctions Push Could Threaten Obama’s International Coalition On Iran

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, national security policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

The National Defense Authorization Act recently passed by the Senate contains several major provisions relating to U.S. policy on Iran, including controversial new sanctions involving Iran’s Central Bank. It authorizes President Obama to impose sanctions directly on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), but does not require him to do so. However, it does require the president to impose sanctions — not on Iran, but on other foreign banks that do business with the CBI or other Iranian financial institutions designated by the Treasury Department for sanctions or other penalties. In other words, foreign banks that do business with the Central Bank of Iran would be barred from doing business in the United States.

The measures in the defense bill do give President Obama some wiggle room — for instance, allowing him to issue waivers every 120 days — but do not give him the necessary flexibility to conduct the delicate diplomacy required to isolate Iran. As Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote to Congress, “Rather than motivating [our closest allies and largest trading partners] to join us in increasing pressure on Iran, they are more likely to resent our actions and resist following our lead — a consequence that would serve the Iranians more than it harms them.”

While the desire of Congress to further pressure Iran as it continues to refuse to come clean on its nuclear activities is understandable, the smarter policy approach is to give President Obama the tools necessary to maintain the international coalition to hold Iran accountable for its actions and omissions. By threatening to crack this coalition with unilateral actions that could harm even our closest allies with these sanctions, Congress is undermining President Obama’s Iran policy when it should be trying to strengthen it. The sanctions provisions of the defense bill threaten to seriously undercut the painstaking diplomatic action that has left Iran more isolated than ever.