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As Iran Nuclear Negotiations Begin, Threat of Increased Sanctions Looms Large

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Last week Iran and the so-called P5+1 countries -- Russia, China, Britain, France, the U.S., plus Germany -- began a new round of negotiations in the Austrian capital of Vienna. While perhaps overshadowed by tensions on the Crimean Peninsula and missing Malaysian Flight 370, the talks mark a significant step towards resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis. Yet misguided calls by Congress to increase sanctions on Iran threaten to scuttle progress, and underscore the fragility of the negotiating process.

Over the past three decades, Iran has faced crippling sanctions imposed by America and the international community. Trade restrictions have steadily increased to block Iran's lucrative petroleum export market as well as the country's participation in the global banking system. All told, international sanctions have cost Iran over $100 billion in lost oil profits alone.

So called "carrot and stick" policies have long been fundamental to international diplomacy. The "stick" has been a sharp one, and has finally brought the Iranians to the negotiating table.

During his September visit to the UN General Assembly in New York, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke with President Obama over the phone, marking the first direct communication between an American and Iranian president since 1979. On November 24, an interim "first-step" deal was reached to freeze Iran's nuclear development program and pave the way for a comprehensive agreement. The deal halts uranium enrichment above 3.5 percent and puts international observers on the ground in Iran, all but ensuring that negotiations cannot be used as a delay tactic.

Yet amid these positive signs that diplomacy is working, members of Congress have advocated for even more sanctions to be levied against Iran, specifically in the form of Senate Bill 1881, sponsored by Illinois Republican Mark Kirk and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez.

New sanctions would torpedo the Vienna talks and reverse the diplomatic progress that has been made.

Iranian officials have already promised to abandon negotiations if new sanctions are passed. Even our own allies, along with Russia and China, have opposed the move. Passing unilateral sanctions will splinter the fragile international coalition, needlessly antagonize Iranian negotiators, and make a violent conflict with Iran more likely. Diplomatic victory will only be achieved if the international community stands united before Iran.

To this point, the Obama administration has avoided a vote on SB 1881 by threatening a veto of the bill, and the administration's full court press to prevent Senate Democrats from supporting new sanctions has bought international negotiators time. Several influential Democrats, including Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut, have agreed to postpone a vote on the bill, contingent on productive negotiations.

Although legislation imposing new sanctions has been avoided thus far, the pressure on Congressional Democrats to act will intensify as talks in Vienna move forward. This round of negotiations is widely projected to be more difficult than the November deal, and inflammatory rhetoric from Tehran is likely. Nevertheless, sanctions are not the answer. Instead, we must continue to let diplomacy run its course.

Sanctions have done their job by bringing Iran to the table. In return, Iran expects to be rewarded with sanctions relief. The passage of new trade restrictions would effectively withdraw the carrot, and hit Iran with another stick. Consider the negotiations over.

The risks of delaying new sanctions is slight. The sanctions relief Iran is receiving is valued between $6 and $7 billion, and represents only a small fraction of the remaining restrictions blocking Iran from using the international banking system and selling oil. Should Iran prove to be a dishonest negotiating partner, sanctions can be renewed and ratcheted up. Most importantly, international observers will be on the ground in Iran to prevent Tehran from racing towards a nuclear weapon while negotiations are ongoing.

At the same time, the benefits of successful diplomacy are immense, as a comprehensive deal would be a dramatic victory for U.S. non-proliferation efforts. Further, the dismantling of Iran's nuclear program would significantly ease tensions between its two biggest rivals in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Our congressional leaders must not be so confident as to think Iran is desperate for a deal. The unprecedented overtures of President Rouhani to the West are widely seen as a test to gauge if a favorable solution can be negotiated with the international community. Should he fail to do so, hardliners within the Iranian government will be empowered to revert back to a pre-Rouhani foreign policy dominated by isolation from the West and an aggressive nuclear development program.

Our senators are facing significant political pressure to resist multilateralism and pursue increased sanctions based on an uncompromising mistrust of Iran. But history judges leaders not upon their conformity with party politics, but upon the ultimate results they achieve. It's time to negotiate with the Iranians on good faith, and begin the serious work of establishing a meaningful nuclear agreement that could signal the beginning of a new era in Iranian-Western relations.