11/05/2013 05:13 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Congressional Hardliners vs. Obama on Iran

Hardliners in Tehran are not happy with the recent rapprochement between the United States and Iran and the related progress in negotiations to address Western concerns about the Iranian nuclear program. But the bigger threat may come from hardliners in the Washington, including prominent congressional Democrats.

As the first step in a de-escalation deal whose details have yet to be worked out, Iran would agree to strict safeguards to prevent the enrichment of uranium to a degree that could be used for the development of nuclear weapons. In return, the United States would agree to a partial lifting of economic sanctions. Further lessening of sanctions would be dependent on further Iranian concessions.

A bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill, however, opposes even this modest first step. The group is pushing legislation that would make such an interim agreement impossible.

Responding to Reform in Iran

The election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani as Iran's new president this summer sent a clear message that the Iranian people wanted to end the country's isolation and improve relations with the United States by negotiating a mutually agreeable settlement. A senior administration official who has been at the center of the talks for more than two years noted how he had "never had such intense, detailed, straightforward, candid conversations with the Iranian delegation before," adding, "I would say we really are beginning that type of negotiation where one could imagine that you could possibly have an agreement."

Unfortunately, rather than respond positively to Rouhani's election, the U.S. House of Representatives -- just two days before his inauguration in August -- voted by an overwhelming 400-20 margin to impose punitive new sanctions on Iran. The measures targets Iran's foreign reserves and attempts to end all Iranian oil sales by 2015, with the goal of plunging the country into a debilitating economic depression. It was a bipartisan rejection of the new president's offer to enhance nuclear transparency and pursue "peace and reconciliation" with the West.

Senate Pushback

The Obama administration has been trying to prevent the Senate from taking up the bill. Particularly in light of the positive developments of recent weeks, the administration doesn't want to alienate U.S. allies and disrupt hopes for a diplomatic solution. Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator in the talks with Iran, called for a delay in imposing any new sanctions on Iran to see how the talks progress, saying, "We think that this is a time for a pause, to see if these negotiations can gain traction." Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), however, says to do so would constitute "appeasement."

The Obama administration has expressed concerns that Iran's civilian nuclear program is advancing in such a way that it could eventually be weaponized. However, based on a consensus of U.S. intelligence agencies, the administration acknowledges that there is no evidence that Iran currently has a nuclear weapons program. Despite this, the letter by the Menendez and the others claims that Iran already has a "nuclear weapons program." Furthermore, this bipartisan group -- which also includes Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Robert Casey (D-PA), Christopher Coons (D-DE), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Charles Schumer (D-NY) -- insists that only after completely dismantling this non-existent program will they "be prepared to remove existing sanctions in a measured, sequenced manner." Until then, the letter states, "we reaffirm that a credible military threat remains on the table and we underscore the imperative that the current sanctions be maintained aggressively."

Noting that there are other issues with Iran, such as the regime's political repression and denial of civil liberties to Iranians, the Senate hardliners insist that sanctions must remain in place even if the nuclear issues is resolved. Even putting aside the obvious double-standards -- such as their support for allied Middle Eastern governments with similarly poor human rights records -- a refusal to consider lessening sanctions in return for a nuclear agreement is clearly a non-starter. In other words, they -- like their counterparts in the House -- appear to want the talks to fail.

Sanctions or War?

Anyone who has studied conflict resolution recognizes that, in order to get the other party to do what you want them to do, there must be incentives as well as punishment. Imposing harsh sanctions without the hope of partial relief short of capitulation is completely unrealistic, especially against a country with a strong a sense of nationalism and a history of humiliation by the West. There must be ways for both sides to declare victory. This is what a majority of congressional Democrats as well as Republicans is trying to prevent.

Unfortunately, the alternative to a successful negotiated settlement appears to be war. Some Republicans, at least, are being honest about it: Congressman Trent Franks (AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham -- declaring that the time for talking with Iran is over -- have introduced a resolution authorizing the use of military force. According to the resolution, even the complete elimination of Iran's nuclear program would not be enough to avoid war, since the resolution includes a number of unrelated demands, including Iranian recognition of Israel. Some Republicans want to go even further. For example, Sheldon Adelson, chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition, recently called for a U.S. nuclear strike on Iran.

As Foreign Policy magazine noted, "Opposition from Democratic lawmakers represents more than just a political headache for the administration. Congress has the power to impose, modify or remove sanctions regardless of what the White House wants, and it has shown a willingness to overrule the administration in the past."

Unless the American public holds both Republican and Democratic legislators accountable, they will succeed in doing just that. And the likely consequence, sooner or later, could be a disastrous war.

An earlier version of this commentary appeared on Foreign Policy In Focus.