In his State of the Union address, President Obama sent a strong message to the Senate to support our nation’s diplomats engaged in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, saying "For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed." The Senate has played an important role by applying pressure in concert with world powers that brought Tehran to the negotiating table. Now, with the pressure of sanctions having achieved its goal, the most important role Congress can play is to leave the negotiations in the able hands of American diplomats.
Iran’s nuclear program poses complex challenges to U.S. interests, the security of Israel and the stability of the Middle East. In November, the United States, along with Russia, Germany, China, France and the United Kingdom, negotiated a first-step agreement that froze the nuclear program and allowed for unprecedented, intrusive daily inspections while both sides worked toward a long-term accord. In exchange, the international community offered limited sanctions relief, but kept the most damaging sanctions, such as those on Iran’s financial sector that prevent Tehran from exporting much of its oil, firmly in place.
Sanctions have accomplished much, but there can be too much of a good thing. The Iranian leadership has signaled that further sanctions would be a fatal blow to negotiations. Iran’s reaction to the prospect of new sanctions is predictable. President Hassan Rouhani faces mounting pressure from conservative hardliners, who opposed negotiating with the West from the outset. They will charge that new sanctions are clear evidence that the West is not negotiating in good faith, pressure Rouhani to walk away from talks and blame the United States for their failure. The consequence could be war.
As Meir Dagan, former head of the Israel's intelligence agency, once said, “It is the kind of thing where we know how it starts, but not how it will end."
And we need to be clear: military action would fail to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. While it may set Iran’s nuclear program back, it certainly will not eliminate it and would actually serve to unite Iran behind building a bomb. George W. Bush’s CIA Director and NSA chief Michael Hayden noted, “When we talked about this in the government, the consensus was that [attacking Iran] would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent — an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret.”
After decades of mistrust, coming to a long-term agreement with Iran on its nuclear program will be an enormous challenge. Sanctions — many of which came from Congress — played an instrumental role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table, but economic pressure is only effective if it is part of a larger strategy. Without negotiations, sanctions do little to slow Iran’s nuclear program. Congress has played its role in that strategy; it’s time to let the negotiators play theirs.
About Ryan Crocker
is dean and executive professor at the George Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University.