A small group of Republican senators on Thursday wondered whether the international coalition the Obama administration assembled to sanction Iran’s oil and banking sectors will hold if the U.S. and its partners do not reach a final deal with Tehran over its nuclear program.
That coalition has been widely credited as a significant factor in bringing the Iranians to the negotiating table as international cooperation — particularly from Europe, Russia and China — on an embargo of Iranian oil exports and on disallowing Iranian participation in key banking enterprises, such as the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, have crippled Iran’s economy.
If the U.S. walks away from the talks, Sen. James Risch (R-ID) said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on regional implications of a potential Iran deal, “how do we get the genie back in the bottle on the sanctions?”
“We need some partners on this,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) similarly wondered about the fate of this coalition if the nuclear negotiations carry on indefinitely or fail to yield a deal.
“What concerns are there that if we don’t continue that our allies will leave us behind and figure nothing will ever be good enough for the Americans, we’ll cut our own deal?” Flake asked. “I think we all concede that Iran is at the table because of these sanctions and it is because we’ve had cooperation with our European allies on this and we need them to stay at the table. We need this to be Iran vs. the West rather than Iran versus the U.S. in terms of sanctions.”
Indeed, as CAP expert Matt Duss has noted, U.S. business has learned to live with sanctions on Iran, as those sanctions have been engrained in the economy for decades. But for the U.S.’s European and Asian partners, however, it’s a different story because many “have ongoing trade relationships with Iran.”
“This multilateral cooperation has been a key source of the sanctions’ impact and effectiveness, but if the United States were seen as undermining or refusing a reasonable deal, that cooperation would be threatened,” Duss wrote shortly after the interim nuclear agreement was reached last November. “This is a far more likely scenario for the slow collapse of sanctions than one caused by the very limited and reversible relief now being offered.”
Robert Einhorn, former special advisor for nonproliferation and arms control during the Obama administration, agrees, writing in a recent report that the U.S. pushing for maximalist outcomes — such as “eliminating Iran’s sensitive nuclear facilities and completely banning enrichment” — would be “not only futile but counterproductive.”
“Key U.S. partners in the international sanctions coalition against Iran would conclude that the United States, and not Iran, had become the main impediment to agreement, and their support for implementing sanctions would consequently weaken and the sanctions regime would eventually unravel,” he wrote.
Also during Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) echoed Flake’s worry. “I am concerned about whether or not the reconstitution of the international coalition, which I think everyone would agree aren’t successful if it’s just us,” Paul said. “Is there going to be the ability, if there is no deal, or if there is the sense that Iran is evading the interim deal, to reconstitute an international coalition to make sanctions effective?”
While one witness at the hearing, former adviser to President Obama on the Middle East Dennis Ross, said the ability to sustain the coalition is “much greater” if Iran is seen as the agitator, another witness, Frederick Kagan of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said he wasn’t sure. “We certainly have the problems with Russia that we have. We have problems with China that we have so I’m not sure we’re going to be able to continue to do that,” Kagan said.
Even if a deal is reached, it’s possible that Congress could play spoiler and refuse to repeal Iran sanctions legislation. In that scenario, a recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations recommended that the EU should not follow the U.S. lead and instead take a more “proactive” approach.
The EU “could do so by offering Iran a European economic package that in essence creates additional phases to the implementation process of a final deal. Europe could carry out this phase on its own, by taking a different stance in comparison to the US Congress regarding sanctions relief provided to Iran,” the report says. “This more active and independent strategy for détente with Iran is one that Europe should seriously debate if the position taken by Congress opposes not only the U.S. president but also European interests.”