Democratic and Republican senators are pushing to derail a confidence-building six-month test agreement with Iran before it takes effect on Jan. 20.
Senators hatched a bill to impose more sanctions after President Barack Obama announced in November that Iran had signed a first-step agreement with the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany.
Now, as Obama announced an implementation plan over the weekend and midterm elections approach, the Senate bill has 59 co-sponsors – every Republican and 16 Democrats. It’s close to a veto-proof majority. A similar bill ratcheting up sanctions already passed the House last July on a 400-to-20 vote. Lawmakers see no political downside in taking a hard line on Iran. Policy considerations aside, lawmakers are under pressure from neoconservatives and pro-Israeli lobbyists to impose greater sanctions and threaten military attacks.
The bellicose election-year rhetoric has real-world consequences.
Ten level-headed Senate committee chairpersons – including Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, nobody’s patsy – argue that the timing is wrong for new sanctions. With the six-month agreement about to take effect and negotiations on a long-term agreement about to begin, “new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail,” they wrote in their Dec. 18 letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
That would be a major setback. Under the six-month agreement, Iran agreed to suspend all enrichment of uranium above 5 percent and to convert its entire stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to below 5 percent, with intrusive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In exchange, the United States and its partners agreed to “limited, temporary, targeted and reversible relief” worth $7 billion of the current $100 billion Iran loses each year from sanctions. The bulk of existing sanctions remain in place, including key oil and banking sanctions, all U.N. Security Council sanctions and those related to Iran’s military program, state sponsorship of terrorism and human rights abuses.
The 10 senators rightly point out that if Iran fails to abide by the terms of the agreement, or fails to negotiate a long-term agreement restricting its nuclear program, “Congress should promptly consider new sanctions legislation.”
But not now.
Pursuing negotiations in no way means turning a blind eye to the dictatorial nature of the Iranian regime. But let’s not lose focus. This is about preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, not about “regime change” as with Iraq and Saddam Hussein.
After 35 years of mistrust and quasi-war, it is worth testing Iranian good faith, while keeping a wary eye on Iranian ambitions and verifying promises with inspections. We will know soon enough if Iran backs its words with actions.
The six-month agreement and the potential for a longer-term agreement are the best chance for reversing Iran’s nuclear program short of war. Congress should give it a chance.