by Ellie Geranmayeh
In recent weeks, hard-line members of the US Congress have stepped up their game of obstructing diplomacy with Iran. Resolving the Iranian nuclear conflict has been used as a chip in domestic politics rather than a foreign policy issue pursued through a multilateral track. Opposition to incentivized diplomacy with Iran is likely to intensify with the looming US mid-term elections and the November 24 deadline for the extended negotiations. Powerful factions in Congress are signaling that they will try to tie the hands of the US executive when it comes to fulfilling its obligations under a reasonable final deal. Given how sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program operate, the hawks in Congress are not just a problem for the US president — they are a problem for Europe, too.
President Barack Obama has presidential authority to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear program and issue temporary waivers on easing sanctions. At some point, the administration and Congress will have to see eye to eye in order to legislate for permanent sanctions relief as part of a comprehensive agreement. The on-going debate on Capitol Hill around this issue has vast implications for European companies that have been severely limited in their ability and willingness to do business with Iran due to the secondary effect of US sanctions. European companies took a large financial hit to endorse the sanctions regime against Iran since 2006. They understandably want a durable deal allowing them to trade with Iran without risking US Treasury penalties or a future US president dramatically altering the policy on Iran to Europe’s detriment.
Europeans companies have good reasons to worry that Congress won’t play ball as part of a final deal agreed to by Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany). US lawmakers have called for fresh sanctions and/or for existing sanctions, which are suspended under the interim nuclear deal, to be reinstated. Other members of Congress have proposed restricting the presidential waivers on sanctions against Iran. These measures would clearly spoil the spirit of good faith in the negotiations and go against the interim nuclear deal agreed to last November.
Powerful lobby groups and senators have campaigned Congress to shift the goal posts for the nuclear talks to include Iran’s role in sponsoring terrorism and its human rights record. Representative Eliot Engel has predicted that even if a final deal was reached, Congress would not allow the lifting of sanctions until Iran stopped being a “bad actor” in the region. Engel failed to define the meaning of his condition or how to measure such a change. Although these issues are all areas of concern for the West, they are unconnected to Iran’s nuclear program and rest outside the parameters of the nuclear talks. Proponents of these measures know well that the outcome of actually endorsing such conditions will squeeze Iran out of the diplomatic process. The additional measures also put a huge burden on implementation timelines for a final deal and impose an impossible bar for the US executive to meet. The European strategy of tackling human rights issues in tandem with supporting the nuclear talks provides a better model for progress on both issues.
The position of Congressional hawks is at odds with the P5+1’s overriding objective of removing potential threats posed by Iran’s nuclear program and lifting associated sanctions. Focusing on this goal is partially easier for the EU, which, unlike the US, has maintained clear divisions between sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program and those directed at human rights and terrorism. Europeans also have a different psychology when it comes to tacitly accepting Iran’s limited enrichment capability. For example, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee recently backed diplomacy with Iran and publicly acknowledged that “there is probably no prospect of a lasting deal which does not allow Iran to enrich uranium”. This stands in stark contrast to the hard-line position by Israel and certain members of Congress insisting that Iran dismantle all its centrifuges and cease uranium enrichment on its own soil.
Without doing Obama’s job for him, Europeans should outline their interests and reasons for backing a final nuclear deal within the US political debate. Although this may not have much sway with the hawks, it could have a noticeable impact on those members of Congress who are sitting on the fence when it comes to diplomacy with Iran. Sceptics must be reminded that Iran has fully implemented the interim nuclear deal, which has in turn provided a stringent inspection on Iran’s nuclear program. A final deal can fulfill the checklists Western powers need to ensure Iran is unable to make a clandestine dash for the bomb. The alternatives to diplomacy, of upping sanctions or engaging in military conflict cannot wholly eliminate Iran’s capacity for nuclear weapons. These actions will further destabilize an already turbulent and unpredictable region. They would also remove the potential for Iran to become a constructive actor in countries like Iraq.
Diplomacy with Iran has been a true exercise in patience, and there is a long road ahead. Congress should be wary of being perceived as the unreasonable actor in the nuclear talks. After all, it was the Europeans who in the early 2000s persuaded a reluctant US administration to follow the dual-track approach of sanctions and dialogue that avoided war and resulted in last year’s interim accord. But it was also Europe, rather than the US, that accepted the high costs associated with sanctioning Iran’s oil and banking sector, which Congress fully endorsed. If the US legislature obstructs a final deal without due cause, the international consensus behind sanctioning Iran to address proliferation concerns would be in danger. This could result in unwanted consequences not only in the Iranian case, but also in building future partnerships with Europe on sanctions, notably with respect to Russia.
Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier brief the press about their bilateral consultations during negotiations with Iran in Vienna on July 13, 2014.