Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced a resolution on Wednesday calling on Congress to pass additional sanctions on Iran unless it ceases all uranium enrichment, even as U.S. officials and its international partners report progress in talks with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear program in Geneva this week.
“We are beginning that kind of negotiation to get to a place where, in fact, one can imagine that you could possibly have an agreement,” said a senior U.S. official, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Yet Rubio, and many of his Congressional colleagues for that matter, don’t appear to be all that interested in what’s been going on in Europe. “No one should be impressed by what Iran appears to have brought to the table in Geneva,” he said in a statement on Wednesday previewing his resolution. The measure says that “Congress should move to pass a new round of additional sanctions [on Iran] without delay” unless Iran “has completely abandoned its nuclear weapons program, including any enrichment or reprocessing capability, and has provided complete transparency to the International Atomic Energy Agency regarding its work on weaponization of a nuclear device.”
There are some problems with Rubio’s move here. The first is that Rubio and his fellow members of Congress are not the ones negotiating with the Iranians over its nuclear program. The talks are taking place between Iran and negotiators from the P5+1 world powers, the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany. Moreover, it’s unlikely that Iran will stop enriching its own uranium as part of any agreement with the P5+1, let alone because of some squawking from the U.S. Congress. “A permanent end to Iranian enrichment is not in the cards,” experts Colin Kahl and Alireza Nader wrote in a recent piece for Foreign Policy.
But probably more importantly, members of Congress threatening to pile on more sanctions on Iran — in exchange for concessions they’re unlikely to get — has the potential to undermine the P5+1 negotiations. The Obama administration’s chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman asked Senators earlier this month to hold off on additional sanctions while new talks with Iran are underway. In an interview on Wednesday, Sherman sounded upbeat about the process, saying the Iranians in Geneva “came prepared for detailed, substantive discussion with a candor that I certainly have not heard in the two years I’ve been meeting with Iranians and my P5+1 colleagues some of whom have been doing this for quite some time, found a quite new and different.”
Experts have argued that more punitive measures from Congress directed at Iran won’t help the process. “We do believe that the piling 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,” William Leurs, Thomas Pickering and Jim Walsh wrote just after the election of Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new relatively moderate president.
“[I]t does seem reasonable,” CAP’s Matt Duss wrote at the American Prospect on Thursday, “to avoid an escalation at precisely the moment that Iran’s new administration is taking the steps that the international community has demanded — and at some political risk, with Iran’s own domestic hardliners waiting to pounce if Rohani’s initiative fails — in order to explore the current opportunity.”
“It’s useful for Congress to be the crazy uncle in the attic threatening more sanctions,” former top Obama administration State Department official P.J. Crowley tweeted on Thursday, “but not if it actually scuttles talks with Iran.”
Other members of Congress don’t think it’s a good idea either. “There are very hawkish voices being raised and there is a push for additional sanctions in the Senate,” Rep David Price (D-NC) told Foreign Policy. “I think it’s ill-timed.”
As for Rubio, while the Florida Republican has been a constant hawkish voice in the Senate, it’s also worth noting who’s giving him foreign policy advice. Earlier this year, he hired former Foreign Policy Initiative executive director Jamie Fly as his top foreign policy and national security adviser. And Fly has made no secret about his desire to see a war in Iran to set about another misguided U.S-led campaign for regime change in a Middle Eastern country.