Diplomacy with Iran: the administration gets it, Congress…not so much
The opening for diplomacy with Iran gets its first big test this week with the resumption of the P5+1 nuclear talks. The signs look good following an encouraging couple of months since Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration as president of Iran.
One basic principle of diplomacy is that each side must gain something from the negotiations in order to get to a deal (seems obvious, but clearly isn’t to a lot of pundits). After decades of harsh sanctions, sanctions relief is one of the most tempting incentives the US has to offer Iran. Thankfully, the administration is showing openness to sanctions relief in exchange for concessions with Iran.
Iran is expected to propose a moratorium on enrichment to 20 percent, a level that experts say is worrying, while restricting enrichment to the range of 3 percent to 5 percent that is used in commercial reactors. In return, it wants quick reciprocal gestures from the United States, a step that a senior American official said the Obama administration was prepared to take.
“We are quite ready to move,” said the official, who added that the American delegation to the talks, scheduled to start on Tuesday, includes top experts on the economic sanctions that have heavily damaged on Iran’s economy.
But the senior official also said that the United States and its partners in the talks would first wait to see if Iran was prepared to take concrete steps to constrain the pace and scope of its nuclear program, address its growing stockpile of enriched uranium and provide a new degree of transparency about its nuclear activities.
Unfortunately, many in Congress still seem stuck in a sanctions-only mentality without regard to what the actual path to a successful diplomatic solution looks like. Almost all freshman representatives signed a letter to President Obama calling for strengthening sanctions on Iran. The letter, ignoring the changes in the political landscape, says that “we must increase the intensity and accelerate the pace of our pressure on Iran” at exactly the wrong time for this sentiment. It contradicts the intelligence community’s conclusions about Iran’s nuclear program, saying “time is running out,” and puts unrealistic expectations on Rouhani. It’s unfair to condemn him for the lack for “substantive evidence” that Iran will address concerns about its nuclear program in a two-month window in which no serious diplomatic talks have even taken place.
A group of senators also weighed in with ostensible support for diplomacy today, yet they outlined unrealistic parameters for negotiations.
We support your efforts to explore a diplomatic opening, but we believe that the true test of Iranian sincerity is a willingness to match rhetoric with actions. The critical test will be Iran’s proposal to the P5+1 this week in Geneva. Iran’s first confidence-building action should be full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, fulfillment of its responsibilities under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and implementation of all Resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, to include immediate suspension of all enrichment activity. If the Iranian government takes these steps in a verifiable and transparent manner, we are willing to match Iran’s good-faith actions by suspending the implementation of the next round of sanctions currently under consideration by the Congress. In short, the U.S. should consider, with the other members of the P5+1, a “suspension for suspension” initial agreement – in which Iran suspends enrichment and the U.S. suspends the implementation of new sanctions.
All credible experts acknowledge that Iran must be allowed some kind of enrichment program for a deal to succeed; this letter rejects that out of hand. The supposed carrot they offer is also ludicrous–in exchange for a major concession from Iran, we would not lift any of the existing sanctions, but would deign to hold off from passing more?
If Congress is going to fundamentally misunderstand the role of sanctions at this point, which are not an end in and of themselves, and the outlines of an effective diplomatic deal, they are better off keeping quiet and letting the administration pursue diplomatic talks unhindered.