Editorial: Keep up pressure on Iran heading into talks

Published: Friday, Oct. 4, 2013 - 12:00 am

Sanctions against Iran have been a part of U.S. policy since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Yet the “range, depth and power of the financial and economic sanctions that Iran faces today are unlike anything any country has ever encountered,” according to Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen.

That severe pressure has changed the calculus of Iran’s leaders, a breakthrough not seen in more than three decades of U.S.-Iranian standoff.

If Oct. 15-16 talks in Geneva conclude with an actual outline of a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program, that would be major progress. It could be as significant as the initial steps that brought about the opening to China in the 1970s after two decades of Cold War and the opening to Vietnam in the 1990s after two decades of severed relations.

President Barack Obama’s “dual-track strategy” to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons may be paying off. The pressure track of sanctions has pushed Iran toward the track of diplomatic engagement.

Previous Iranian governments insisted they could withstand sanctions, refusing to negotiate a nuclear deal. But in the recent presidential elections in Iran, sanctions were a major issue, an indication that the sanctions of the last four years have had an effect. The winning candidate, Hassan Rouhani, made the case that lack of a nuclear deal was hurting the Iranian economy.

Indeed, U.S.-led sanctions have hammered Iran’s oil sector, with exports dropping by more than 1million barrels a day, costing Iran $5billion a month. Innovative sanctions also have virtually ended Iran’s access to the international banking system. The value of Iran’s currency has plummeted.

The United States basically gave foreign banks a choice: They could do business with U.S. banks or Iranian banks. Nearly everyone terminated business with Iranian banks, and those that haven’t are paying a steep price – no access to U.S.-based banks.

Obama has made it clear that the pressure of sanctions will continue so long as Iran refuses to address international concerns about its nuclear program.

This may account for the new Iranian willingness to come to the bargaining table.

So the undersecretary of state for political affairs told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, “We enter this period hopeful, but sober. ... We have been clear that only concrete, verifiable steps can offer a path to sanctions relief.”

The United States certainly has to be cautious. Once you lift sanctions, they’re difficult to bring back.

Tough sanctions should continue as the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France and Germany hammer out a deal that includes tough international inspections, shutting down centrifuges, capping the stockpile of enriched uranium, turning over uranium stocks and limiting enrichment of uranium to lower than 5percent, the level needed for civilian energy production.

As Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday, “It is not words that will make a difference, it’s actions.”

Unfortunately, the government shutdown is hampering the United States in maintaining the pressure of sanctions with the Oct. 15-16 talks looming. Because Congress has failed to keep the government running, the U.S. Treasury has had to furlough 90percent of the experts who enforce sanctions in the Office of Terrorist Financing and Intelligence.

For negotiations with Iran to succeed, the pressure part of Obama’s dual-track strategy must continue. This is yet another reason for House Speaker John Boehner to hold an up-or-down vote on the continuing resolution that passed the U.S. Senate.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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