Iran began taking verifiable steps this week to stop work on its most worrisome nuclear activities under the terms of an agreement with the United States and five other world powers. The breakthrough nuclear deal marks the first negotiated limitations on Iran's nuclear program in nearly a decade and opens the door for talks on a comprehensive agreement to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
As long as Iran complies with the limits on its program, the P5+1 group (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) has agreed to provide limited and reversible relief from some of the sanctions now in force against Iran. The six powers also pledged to refrain from any additional sanctions for the duration of the agreement, which will allow more frequent (daily) inspections of Iran's key nuclear sites, providing for early warning of any noncompliance.
Unfortunately, a group of 59 senators, including Maryland's Ben Cardin, has introduced and is seeking a vote on a bill (S. 1881) that would impose further sanctions on Iran, reopen the terms of the first phase agreement and impose new and unrealistic restrictions on the comprehensive deal.
The bill's authors claim their proposal for additional sanctions supports a diplomatic solution. As President Barack Obama and the 10 Senate Democratic committee chairs have warned, it would not.
Why? The new Iran sanctions bill sets out impractical demands for the still-to-be-negotiated comprehensive deal. Iran and the P5+1 powers have already agreed that the final phase deal will include a "mutually defined enrichment program" for Iran. But S. 1881 would only allow the suspension of sanctions if Iran agrees to zero-enrichment and the complete dismantlement of its nuclear infrastructure.
Zero-uranium enrichment may have been conceivable a decade ago when Iran had less than 300 centrifuges. But today, Iran has 10,000 operating centrifuge machines. A deal that forces Iran to capitulate and give up any and all uranium enrichment, even for peaceful purposes, would be politically unsustainable inside Iran. Instead, Congress should support efforts to negotiate a final deal that caps Iran's uranium enrichment program at far lower levels and puts in place even more intrusive inspections to guard against cheating.
The bill's authors say their proposal won't necessarily impose new sanctions right away because S. 1881 gives the U.S. president authority to temporarily waive the sanctions if Tehran meets the terms of the first phase agreement, as well as additional measures. That is misleading.
The bill would require that Iran take additional steps (including ending financing for terrorist groups and halting missile tests) that go beyond the terms of the first phase nuclear agreement. If Iran does not meet these added requirements (and it will not), new sanctions would go into effect within weeks. Iran's Foreign Minister has made clear that new sanctions legislation would be interpreted as a violation of the U.S. commitments in the nuclear agreement.
International sanctions have certainly played a role in motivating Tehran's leaders to reach the first-phase deal to limit their nuclear program by halting uranium enrichment above normal fuel-grade, stopping installation of more advanced uranium centrifuges and halting major construction work on a new reactor that could produce plutonium in the future. But if the U.S. tries to impose still more sanctions in the middle of the ongoing nuclear talks, other countries will see Washington, not Tehran, as the problem, and their support for the enforcing international sanctions against Iran will erode.
The threat of further U.S. sanctions would also undermine support inside Iran for nuclear restraint. Iranian hardliners, who already oppose the nuclear deal, will likely take retaliatory steps and make it harder for Iran's President, Hassan Rouhani, to agree to further limits on Iran's nuclear program.
As a result, talks on a comprehensive deal would likely collapse, Iran's nuclear activities would accelerate, bringing it closer to being able to produce nuclear weapons, and the risk of an Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear sites would grow.
Military strikes would, at best, only delay Iran's nuclear program and at worst, would lead to a wider conflict and give Iran an excuse to openly pursue nuclear weapons.
Though the cosponsors of S. 1881 may have good intentions, this is not the time to move forward with new sanctions legislation. Maryland's Congressional representatives should support — not blow up — the promising diplomatic process to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.