Friday, December 20, 2013

Iran and Congress - A moment of consequence

A few thoughts on the moves in Congress to pass a tough new sanctions bill.

1) It's already clear that the Iran deal is in jeopardy. The Iranians have yet to commit to a timetable for enaction of the Geneva protocols. At the same time, the Iranian government is complaining about US action to tighten existing sanctions. In short, the omens don't look good. For a Congress that was already deeply skeptical of the President's deal, evidence of Iranian non-compliance is a catalyst for existing trepidation. In this sense, it's obvious that the President is going to have a tough time convincing Democrats to back down.

2) It's also clear that Israeli concerns are heavily influencing this deal. In contrast to the President, the Israelis believe that only a full cessation of Iranian nuclear activities will suffice. Obama is open to a final agreement that allows for a low-enrichment capped continuation of the Iranian nuclear program. If this bill does in fact pass and carries a stipulation that the President must only accept a deal that ends Iran's nuclear program completely, the Israelis will have dragged the Administration into alignment with their own position.
           That being said, as Commander-in-Chief, Obama has significant flexibility in the conduct of US foreign policy.

3) In its present reported form, this bill would, if passed, also bring other US-Iranian points of discord into the nuclear negotiations process. For a start, the bill contains caveats that continued Iranian support for terrorism against the US, and/or a bad faith negotiating strategy, would both cause these new sanctions to kick in. While I understand and share these concerns (more so than many others), their introduction into this process will be profoundly unhelpful. It would create two negative follow on effects. First, Iranian hardliners would never agree to halt ongoing covert operations against the US (these occur all the time, but rarely make the news). Second, the caveats would be destabilizing to those on the Iranian side who are prospectively amenable to a deal. It's important to remember that Iran's negotiating strategy is infected by hesitation and a balancing of interests - Rouhani's 'moderates' vs IRGC hardliners. New pressure in different areas of policy would isolate the moderates. For one example, do we seriously expect that Iran will cease support for groups like the Lebanese Hizballah?* At a basic political level, these concerns seem to have been included in the bill in order to provide Congress with a subjective window of opportunity in which to enact sanctions at a point of their own choosing. After all, Congressional leaders are fully aware that Iran will never conform to the stipulations that this bill would lay down.

4) Although the present character of this bill is unhelpful, Congress can play a constructive role here. First, as is the case with Israel, Congressional anger over this deal may actually strengthen the President's hand in the negotiating process - encouraging the Iranians to swiftly comply with that which they've already said they would comply with. Second, if Congress were to pass a simpler, tighter bill - one that focused on a clear articulation of automatic sanctions if Iran fails to enact the Geneva deal within a short time window (for example...), they could reinforce the strength of their role as noted in point one. An effective bill would also offer automatic sanctions in the event of Iranian 'game playing' with the implementation of Geneva. By pursuing this course, Congress would produce a necessary understanding in the Iranian hardliners - that the US is neither weak nor open to perpetual delays.

* - Were the bill to specify that the caveats only applied to specific terrorist attacks against US citizens, that would of course be legitimate.

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