01/19/2014 02:23 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2014

The Folly of New Iran Sanctions

While the momentum seems to have stalled, the movement in the United States Senate this week to pass a bill raising new sanctions on Iran threatened to undermine the negotiations for a long-term, comprehensive solution to the nuclear issue, just as the interim agreement negotiated in Geneva is planned to go into effect. What was particularly unusual was the bipartisan nature of the support for a bill. Led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ), as many as sixteen Democratic Senators had cosponsored the bill, moving it close to a 60-vote "filibuster proof" margin, which (after likely passage in the House) would force a veto by President Obama.

The timing of the legislation is curious because of the delicate nature of the negotiations and the ongoing diplomacy between the United States and its partners and Iran. Hardliners on all sides are skeptical of any deals, but unlike past negotiations, the stakes this time seem much higher. Well-meaning intentions aside, any legislation that precipitates an Iranian walkout and a collapse of the negotiations will likely be viewed by friends and adversaries alike as a major failure by the United States. However, unlike past instances, the probability of war has significantly increased.

This is no longer a debate about the relative merits of allowing Iran to acquire a functional nuclear weapon capability or the capacity to rapidly construct and deploy several bombs (often called a "breakout" capacity). Various experts have considered the probability of Tehran achieving a nuclear weapon and assessed the implications for regional and global security. More optimistic observers conclude that Iran could be contained by the United States and its allies, and deterred from ever using its weapons. As evidence, they cite the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, India and Pakistan, two nations locked in an intense historical rivalry, and North Korea. Despite the limited proliferation of nuclear weapons -- nowhere near that predicted in the 1960s -- nuclear weapons have not been used. If indeed Iran has designs for a nuclear weapon, these experts argue it most likely to deter outside actors like the United States or Israel from removing the regime.

More pessimistic observers disagree and take much less comfort in the history of proliferation. The historical record, including the evidence of risky crisis-initiation behavior between the two Superpowers paints a less sanguine picture. More importantly, looking at the modern Middle East, an Iranian bomb would potentially transform regional security dynamics. Given the region's geography and its particular vulnerability to nuclear attack, Israel (an undeclared nuclear power) would be on high-alert for any Iranian move. Other actors like Saudi Arabia may seek to acquire their own nuclear deterrent, leading to further proliferation within a region which is already flush with radical terrorist organizations operating across various troubled states. It seems implausible that Tehran's leaders could ever believe that the delivery of a nuclear weapon on Israeli soil by Hezbollah, rather than missile would somehow go unattributed or unpunished, but the introduction of an Iranian nuclear weapons program into a region that is already so tumultuous conjures particularly grim scenarios.

Nonetheless, this debate has effectively been made moot by official U.S. and Israeli policies. The clear commitment of the Obama administration to thwart Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon has been in place for some time. Containment is not an option, and military force will ostensibly be used to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon from becoming operational. Despite this commitment, the Israeli government has consistently expressed its willingness to act alone to stop an Iranian bomb even without U.S. support. While hardliners in Tel Aviv and Washington may not agree, these are both credible threats that the regime in Tehran must take seriously. Thus, the situation confronting Iran and the world is either the peaceful negotiated solution to the nuclear question, or the high likelihood of another destructive, costly war in a region already torn apart by conflict.

The current sanctions bill in the Senate is not about providing President Obama and Secretary Kerry with greater leverage in the negotiations. The Iranian delegation has made clear that it views any such sanctions as an indication of bad faith that will wreck the process and undo any progress made to this point. With the interim agreement set to go into effect next week, this is clearly not the time for the Senate to usurp the authority of the commander-in-chief and his chief diplomat. Taking their respective rationales at face value, the Democratic members of the Senate supporting the sanctions legislation may have good intentions to provide a stronger "bad cop" to Secretary Kerry's "good cop" in Geneva. This is short-sighted. New sanctions will not only play into the narrative of hard-liners in Iran who don't want agreement, it will also isolate the United States from its negotiating partners and likely cripple the cohesive united front that has seemingly emerged throughout the talks. In doing so, it is most likely to fulfill the wishes of hardliners in Israel and the United States that simply don't want an agreement and refuse to take any "yes" for an answer. However, with a failure of negotiations, military conflict is much more likely.