12/04/2013 08:01 pm ET | Updated Feb 03, 2014

Delay Iran Sanctions

Last Sunday, Senator Bob Menendez suggested a fairly good idea for further economic sanctions on Iran. Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has come up with an answer which could possibly satisfy both sides -- those who support the diplomatic track and those who are pushing for harsher sanctions for Iran. The idea is to let the Senate go ahead and pass further sanctions, but to trigger them to the timeline of the ongoing negotiations, so that new sanctions wouldn't kick in until after the six-month period of talks. If a permanent deal is struck before that time, then new sanctions (obviously) wouldn't take effect, but if no deal is reached by the deadline, then the sanctions begin automatically.

This seems like a sensible middle ground to take. It doesn't give either side everything it wants, but such is the nature of compromise. The White House doesn't want the Senate to pass any sanctions at all, and the hardliners in the Senate who aren't fans of the interim deal want to impose new sanctions immediately. Passing delayed sanctions may satisfy both sides enough to be workable, though.

The Iran hawks have made it clear that they're not fans of the interim deal already. Their position is fairly absolute: sanctions must be made more and more crippling, until Iran essentially surrenders and agrees to a deal which gives America and the world everything they've been asking for. Nothing less than such a total surrender should be agreed to, even for a short term. "The sanctions are working," they say, "so let's increase the pressure until Iran capitulates!" Incremental improvements are not acceptable.

The White House is worried that passing more sanctions (even delayed ones) will seem like bad faith to the Iranians. They are closer to a deal which resolves the nuclear problem than at any point in the last three decades, and they're nervous that the diplomatic effort could be derailed by new threats of sanctions.

But delayed sanctions could work better than either side thinks. If the Senate passed sanctions with a six-month trigger, then the White House's position in the talks would actually be strengthened. John Kerry could tell the Iranians, "President Obama wants us to reach a permanent deal, but he can only hold back Congress for so long -- if a deal is not reached, then you're going to face even tougher sanctions the day after the deadline." This gives the Iranians more incentive to deal, because they'll see that the Senate has raised the stakes if no deal is struck.

The hardliners in the Senate may not be completely happy with delaying sanctions. Some senators wouldn't be completely happy unless we were actively dropping bombs on Iran, though. But delayed sanctions would very likely gain the support of more senators (than a vote on immediate sanctions would), because those who believe diplomacy should be given a chance will be able to vote on the plan with a clear conscience. After all, the sanctions wouldn't take effect until the diplomatic effort has failed. And ratcheting up the pressure may be what is needed to send a clear message to Iran that we are not interested in stalling tactics. No endless years-long talks which go nowhere and produce nothing. That's not going to happen -- because the sanctions will take place automatically.

Neither Iran nor America has much reason to trust the other -- that is the biggest obstacle a permanent deal faces. The shared past of the two countries is profoundly negative on both sides. But for the first time since the Iranian revolution, the two countries are sitting down together and trying to work out a deal. We've progressed far enough to be talking, and far enough to strike a temporary deal to allow a permanent framework to be agreed upon. Both sides will be extremely wary of such a final deal. We will insist on the strongest possible verification, and Iran will insist on joining the world's nations as a full equal rather than a pariah.

But sanctions require no trust at all. We have already shown we are fully capable and fully willing to do all we can to cripple the Iranian economy. The sanctions up to this point have worked, to put it another way, and that fact is obvious to both Iran and the rest of the world. Iran already has proof of what sanctions can accomplish; they don't have to take it on faith. And, even before the Senate acts again, if Iran doesn't strike a deal, then the existing sanctions will kick back in. They know this, and they know full well what it means to their economy.

The threat of more and tighter sanctions is not an empty one. It would increase the pain, should the talks fail. It would not be an idle threat, either, if the Senate passes a bill with a hard deadline specified. As long as the Senate includes language which states that a permanent deal would defuse the sanctions, then it could work -- whether a final deal is reached or not.

Secretary of State John Kerry should be given a chance to negotiate, without being undermined by the Senate. If they passed immediate sanctions, the Senate would pull the rug out from under the diplomatic effort. But threatening future sanctions would not weaken Kerry's position; it would in fact strengthen it, because it would be more incentive for the Iranians to deal. It would say to the Iranians, "We're not going to wait forever," while at the same time saying, "If we strike a deal, these sanctions won't happen." The compromise suggested by Bob Menendez could indeed work, and it at least deserves consideration from people on both sides of the sanctions issue.


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