As the United States and Iran look for an exit ramp off the road to war, they may find a surprising new obstacle: the very sanctions legislation that many credit for bringing Iran back to the negotiating table. As a result of that sanctions bill, Congress now has the de-facto power to block any diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. And the scary reality is that the same dysfunctional institution that almost drove the nation into default last summer can exercise this veto power over diplomacy by doing what it does best: nothing at all.
Congress created this dilemma when it passed draconian sanctions on Iran's financial system and oil exports, but failed to give the President the power to repeal those sanctions under any conditions, regardless of whether Iran makes major concessions. Unlike all previous Iran sanctions, Congress did not make these new sanctions conditional on Iran's behavior. If Iran agrees to certain criteria at the negotiating table, the President does not have the power to lift the sanctions. Now, only Congress can lift the most severe sanctions ever imposed on Iran.
As long as only Congress can lift the sanctions, the chances for securing a lasting diplomatic solution shrink dramatically. Any far-reaching solution would have to overcome electoral politics, deep Congressional antipathy towards Iran, the filibuster, the anonymous hold, and Republican leaders determined to prevent President Obama's reelection.
Worse yet, if Iran's leaders do not believe the U.S. Congress will ever repeal the sanctions, they will be less likely to take the risky step of even offering the major concessions these sanctions are supposed to produce. Iran's conspiratorially-minded supreme leader is highly unlikely to give up his main source of leverage - Iran's nuclear capabilities and uranium stockpile - without receiving similarly meaningful and immediate concessions from the United States.
That is not to say Iran will not attempt to manage the conflict through negotiations. Already, Iran has hinted that it may offer concessions to head off sanctions imposed by Europe. But there is a major difference between managing the conflict and attempting to resolve it.
Iran's focus on Europe's sanctions is no accident. The European Union can lift its sanctions more easily that the United States since they were imposed at the executive level and don't require legislative action to lift. Meanwhile, President Obama can only suspend the implementation of sanctions in 120 day increments, which isn't as powerful a tool as it sounds. Suspending the sanctions only somewhat mitigates their economic effect. As the past few months have shown, the mere threat of impending sanctions is enough to scare away most businesses, and those businesses are extremely unlikely to return until that threat is gone.
Furthermore, the upcoming U.S. presidential election means that Iran will discount the value of any U.S. offer to temporarily suspend sanctions in exchange for Iranian concessions since that could be undone by a President Romney with a single pen stroke if Obama isn't reelected.
The sanctions imposed on Iran's central bank should be a major source of leverage for the President in negotiations with Iran. They have inflicted serious damage on the Iranian economy and clearly have gotten the attention of the Iranian leadership. But as long as the President cannot actually remove the sanctions, they will simply become a new fact of life for a regime that has faced sanctions and economic challenges since its inception. At best, the President could use the limited waiver authority in the sanctions bill in exchange for confidence building measures from Iran, but it is probably insufficient to help bring about a more significant agreement.
Thus, for diplomacy to have the greatest chance to succeed in averting both a nuclear Iran and a catastrophic war, Congress needs to empower the President to lift the central bank sanctions in exchange for concrete actions by Iran to addresses the international community's concerns about its nuclear program. Iran would have to finally resolve the IAEA's concerns about potential past weaponization work and adopt the Additional Protocol for more robust nuclear inspections to prove to the world that it is telling the truth when it says it does not want nuclear weapons.
This would not be selling out other issues of concern, like human rights. Other sanctions, such as those targeting Iranian human rights abusers and the sanctions imposed as a result of Iran's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism would remain until those issues are addressed. Furthermore, any nuclear agreement would make it easier to explore areas of potential mutual interest, such as Afghanistan, and would remove the threat of war that has undermined the struggle for human rights in Iran.
America simply cannot afford another war of choice in the Middle East. But the reality is that it is slowly but surely headed towards exactly that. So while Congress fights over tax policy and the budget, it should take a moment to fix its sanctions legislation and return the power to make peace back to the President. Many in Congress may not like President Obama, but most would agree that it is much is better to have the Commander in Chief overseeing diplomats in Tehran rather than deploying troops there.