01/30/2014 11:02 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2014

Americans Must Exercise Their Power to Check Congress on Iran Sanctions

In spite of the United States' unprecedented opportunity to reach a negotiated settlement with the Iranian government over its nuclear program, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are determined to push ahead with sanctions, with 59 of 100 Senators co-sponsoring a bill that would undermine diplomacy if passed. President Obama vowed during his State of the Union speech to veto the bill if it passes but Congress could override his veto with a two-thirds majority of votes in the Senate (67 of 100) and more bellicose House (290 of 435), which passed its own bill last year and would almost certainly support the Senate bill. While two senators may be withdrawing their co-sponsorship of the legislation, the situation remains precarious.

Iran in November agreed for the next six months to cap enrichment of its uranium to a level that could not be used to produce nuclear weapons, to open nuclear facilities previously inaccessible to IAEA inspectors, and to allow daily inspections at these sites. In return the Obama administration agreed to provide limited sanctions relief that could be quickly reversed if Iran breaks the terms of the deal. On January 20, Iran began implementation of this interim nuclear agreement, intended to allow time and political space for negotiations on a comprehensive deal planned to resume in mid-February.

Many legislators, however, are attempting to force the Obama administration's hand on additional sanctions out of a mistaken belief that increasing economic pressure now will strengthen the U.S. negotiating position. Others appear to want to sabotage diplomacy altogether and use the pressure of sanctions to goad Iranian citizens to attempt an overthrow of their government.

It is more likely, however, that this move would provoke Iranian leaders to ratchet up their nuclear enrichment program, which the Iranian parliament has threatened to do in response to increased sanctions.

The escalation in tension would likely lead to military conflict, if not initiated by the U.S. then by Israel, which would likely suck the U.S. in. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, who is privy to the most secret intelligence on Iran within Congress, went so far as to warn that the imposition of additional sanctions would be "a march toward war." A spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council concurred with her assessment.

While advocates for war would have you believe that surgical airstrikes against Iran's nuclear program would be the extent of U.S. engagement, Iran's government would probably feel compelled to retaliate strongly against the U.S., potentially leading to a serious and uncontrollable military escalation if Iran succeeded in inflicting serious pain on the U.S. Furthermore, the Iranian government would probably resolve to rebuild, militarize, and fortify it nuclear program against future airstrikes. Under this scenario, a U.S. invasion of Iran involving several hundred thousand troops would be necessary to ultimately eliminate the threat. And recent history demonstrates that even for the most powerful nation in the world, war is a roll of the dice.

In August 2002, roughly seven months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. military planners assumed that only 5,000 troops would remain there by December 2006. In November 2007 there were roughly 170,000 American troops in Iraq. By the time the U.S. military was finally withdrawn in December 2011, 4,486 American troops had been killed and tens of thousands more had lost limbs or were suffering from other physical and psychological injuries. Up to 48,000 were either homeless or at risk of homelessness in 2013. Far too many have committed suicide after falling through the cracks of an inadequately prepared Veterans Affairs system. Here is the story of one of them.

Eight years of U.S. military occupation in Iraq also made conditions worse for many Iraqis. Anywhere between 77,000 and 655,000 were killed as a direct or indirect consequence of negligence and mistakes made by U.S. officials. Today, more than 10 years after the U.S. invasion, sectarian violence continues to ravage the country and the Iraqi government continues to torture its people, while hundreds of thousands remain refugees or internally displaced. Overthrowing a repressive government does not somehow automatically improve a country's human rights status, as advocates of war would have the American public believe.

The U.S. is also more than $17 trillion dollars in debt. It is incumbent upon every American to consider whether another preventive war potentially costing trillions of dollars more is in the national interest.

Americans in favor of continued diplomacy must speak up now. Senators and Representatives in both parties must be convinced that if they continue to undermine diplomacy or allow their colleagues to sabotage this delicate window of opportunity, they will lose their seats. That is the most powerful check Americans can exert on their government.

Thomas Buonomo is a former U.S. Army Intelligence Officer and specialist in Middle East affairs.