The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday urged President Obama to step up sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, even as experts call for a pause in tightening the screws on Tehran in the wake of the most recent presidential election there.
Republican and Democratic members alike joined together in signing onto a letter, released on Monday, urging Obama to increase pressure on Iran despite the recent election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s next president. Rouhani ran on a campaign of better relations with the international community and was seen as the most moderate choice available to Iranian voters.
“Iran’s election unfortunately has done nothing to suggest a reversal of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity,” the committee members write, noting Rouhani’s previous role as Iran’s nuclear negotiator and his support for Iran’s nuclear program.
But despite Rouhani’s call for increased engagement with the West, the letter says that given that Iran has increased its nuclear activities in recent months, including the installation of more centrifuges at its nuclear facilities and activation of its heavy-water reactor, the Obama administration should not only maintain but also increase the number and degree of financial and trade sanctions in place on Tehran:
As Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, we appreciate your recent imposition of new sanctions and urge you to increase the pressure on Iran in the days ahead. An added positive action would be extending sector-based sanctions to the mining, engineering, and construction-based sectors of Iran. We plan to strengthen sanctions with additional legislation already approved unanimously by the Committee on Foreign Affairs and now pending in the House of Representatives. It is important that you leave no doubt in the minds of the Iranian government that the United States will do all it can to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.
Congress’ rare moment of unity, though, is not universally shared across with international security analysts and Iran experts. While some agree that Rouhani’s election means little for nuclear negotiations, many others remain cautiously optimistic about what his time in office could bring. CAP’s Matt Duss warns that Rouhani will not immediately capitulate to Western demands in nuclear negotiations, but argues that 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.” Likewise, former Obama Defense Department official Colin Kahl argued that U.S. officials should exercise patience in these early days of Rouhani’s tenure. “Rouhani needs some time to get his bearings, form his government, and convince regime hard-liners to give him a chance,” Kahl writes along with Ali Nader. “Piling on additional sanctions now, in apparent disregard of the election results, could undermine this process.”
The Obama administration itself has also made clear that it is wary of new Congressional sanctions, even as they continue to issue new levies against the Iranian government under the authority granted through previous legislation. “There’s an enormous amount of jockeying going on, with the obvious normal tension between hard-liners and people who want to make an agreement,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during a Senate hearing in April. “We don’t need to spin this up at this point in time. … You need to leave us the window to try to work the diplomatic channel.”
“One shouldn’t have any illusions about what the election of Rohani represents. He is a dedicated member of the Iranian regime, and a strong supporter of Iran’s nuclear rights,” Duss wrote last week with CAP’s Lawrence Korb. “But the fact that the most moderate choice prevailed in Iran’s presidential election reveals that there is an important debate taking place amongst Iran’s ruling elite over the nature of Iran’s relations with the world.”
Even before Rouhani’s election, the sanctions policy of the United States has been called into question, barring greater efforts to promote more and greater diplomatic efforts in tandem. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan Ryan Crocker in May warned against a sanctions-only policy against Iran as possibly having a chilling effect on negotiations. His statements tracked with a recent study from The Iran Project, a bipartisan panel of experts, who called for the U.S. to “dedicate as much energy and creativity to negotiating directly with Iran as it has to assembling a broad international coalition to pressure and isolate Iran.”