Time to Talk

Why Now is Not the Time for New Sanctions on Iran

More sanctions on Iran now could hurt prospects for substantive negotiations on the country’s nuclear program, says Dylan Williams.

This past weekend, my 5-year-old boy and I made blueberry muffins from scratch. When it came time to add the baking powder, my son asked what it was. I explained that it made the batter rise, so our treats would be soft and fluffy. He then asked why I didn’t dump in the whole box, so we could make giant, extra-spongy muffins.

It is a simple, linear view of how things work—if a measured amount of something is good, an all-out amount of it must be better.

This is also the world view held by many of those pushing for new sanctions against Iran even as its engagement in negotiations on its nuclear program turn serious and substantive. Sanctions have compelled Iran’s mullahs to the table, they argue, so why won’t more now make them even more pliable?

Yet, much like a disproportionate dose of baking powder would yield inedible, bitter muffins, so would a hasty deluge of sanctions sour the prospects for ensuring Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

First, it is essential to understand that it is not sanctions in themselves that have caused Iran to re-engage in a reportedly constructive manner. Rather, Iran’s change in approach to talks are the result of carefully calibrated sanctions applied in the service of a diplomatic process that offers a way out for Iran should it verifiably alter its nuclear program to end legitimate concerns that its activities may lead to the development of nuclear weapons.

Heaping sanctions on Iran without regard to—or more to the point, in spite of—a major change in the direction in P5+1 talks would likely be interpreted in Tehran as bad faith on the part of the United States, strengthening the hand of hardliners already opposed to President Hassan Rouhani’s renewed engagement on the nuclear file. It would be seen in Iran as giving credence to conservatives’ narrative that Western powers have little intention of removing sanctions even in response to significant, yet still politically feasible, Iranian concessions. The results could be a gravely weakened Rouhani, stripped of the leeway in talks that he currently enjoys.

Beyond irresponsibly jeopardizing progress across the negotiating table, new sanctions at this time could also strain and fracture the unity on our own side of it. It must be remembered that the additional measures currently contemplated in Congress are not just sanctions on Iran—they are also sanctions on entities that do business with it, including large or state-linked companies in countries that are some of the biggest players in the P5+1 itself, such as China and Russia. The U.S. shouldn’t hope to maintain a strong multilateral front in Geneva if it unlinks arms with our partners in order to stab them in the back.

A domestically weakened Rouhani negotiating with a feuding international coalition would all but ensure diplomatic failure and increased Iranian nuclear activity. Even Gary Samore, a former White House official now heading a group specifically created to advocate for increased economic pressure on Iran, warned that new sanctions following the positive Oct. 15 to 16 talks in Geneva, “would look to much of the rest of the world as if the U.S. was blowing up the negotiations. It would play into Iran’s hands, giving them an excuse to accelerate their program.”

This is an outcome that Congress should understand would be at odds with the views of Americans generally, and U.S. Jews specifically. Even before the positive results of the October talks in Geneva, a CNN poll revealed that 76 percent of Americans “favor direct diplomatic negotiations with Iran in an attempt to prevent [it] from developing nuclear weapons.” Among U.S. Jews, who are often presumed to be hawkish in their approach to dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, the just-released American Jewish Committee poll found that 62 percent of respondents “approve of the way President Obama is handling Iran’s nuclear program.”

In contrast, the derailment of talks would be welcomed by some of the loudest proponents of rushing to legislate new sanctions. Hawkish voices at the extreme of the debate over Iran policy, which have long disparaged diplomacy in favor of a military strike, were dealt a tremendous and unexpected setback by the election of Rouhani. Foiled by broad support in Congress to test the prospects for diplomacy under the new Iranian president, they have now latched onto the call for new sanctions should Iran decline to immediately capitulate on nearly every aspect of its nuclear program.

It is one thing to say—rightly—that the window for negotiations is not open-ended and that if real progress isn’t made in talks, new sanctions may be necessary. It is quite another to have spent years badmouthing negotiations and promoting military strikes, only to suddenly argue that legislating new sanctions within a matter of days is required to make diplomacy work.

The reality that opponents of talks are fighting is that, in the coming weeks, the ingredients for a workable agreement between the international community and Iran are likely to be put on the table. We must realize that, while it may take a few tries to get the mix right, the alternative would be a recipe for disaster.