Sheffey: Let Negotiators Do Their Jobs

The question posed to us is how best to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel and destabilize the region. President Obama and members of his administration have repeatedly stated that Iran will be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons and that all options, including the military option, are on the table.

During the Obama administration, Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, increasingly tough sanctions against Iran. The President signed every sanctions bill that Congress sent him. These sanctions hurt Iran economically because President Obama built an international coalition that adhered to the sanctions. But Iran only accelerated its progress toward nuclear weapons.

On November 24, 2013, the United States and its allies entered into an interim agreement with Iran called the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Under the JPOA, Iran agreed to freeze or roll back its nuclear program in return for limited, reversible sanctions relief. The JPOA stopped the clock so that Iran could not advance its program while talks were continuing. The JPOA has been extended twice and expires on June 30, 2015, but the U.S. hopes that a framework for a final agreement will be in place by the end of March, with the remaining time used to work out the details.

The administration and its allies believe that diplomacy is our best chance to stop Iran. We tried sanctions. They brought Iran to the table, but they didn’t stop Iran’s progress—only the JPOA did that. Even the most crippling sanctions, assuming that our allies would agree to tougher sanctions, probably would not be sufficient to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons because Iran is already so close. Military action might set their program back, but unless we are willing to invade and occupy Iran, military action would ultimately succeed only in convincing Iran that it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself.

Some lawmakers now want to pass more sanctions legislation or require that any final agreement be approved by Congress. The administration opposes such legislation. So should we.

Is the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA, or interim agreement) working?

Yes. Tony Blinken testified that “as the result of the constraints in the JPOA, Iran has halted progress on its nuclear program and it has rolled it back in key areas for the first time in a decade, and it has allowed us to have greater insight and visibility through more intrusive and more frequent inspections.” This chart from the Arms Control Association details Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement, andPolitifact verified the President’s statement about Iranian compliance. Meanwhile, despite limited sanctions relief, “virtually the entire sanctions architecture remains in place. Indeed, throughout the existence of the JPOA, sanctions pressure on Iran has not decreased—it has increased.”

How can a bill that imposes sanctions only if a deal is not reached disrupt negotiations? 

The latest version of the Kirk-Menendez bill (sponsored so far by 30 Republicans and eight Democrats, and none of the Democrats want a vote until at least the end of March) would impose sanctions only if we did not reach a final agreement with Iran. The administration opposes triggered sanctions because: 

  • Such sanctions would be viewed by the international community as violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the JPOA—freeing Iran to violate its commitments under the JPOA and resume its nuclear program.
  • Such sanctions could provoke Iran to end negotiations.
  • If Iran did not walk away, Iran would likely adopt more extreme positions in response.
  • If our allies perceive that we are not serious about living into up to our commitments, their support for sanctions will wane. 

But what if we get a bad deal? 

President Obama and his staff have been clear as can be on two points: We will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and no deal is better than a bad deal. The administration’s refusal to sign a bad deal is why the interim agreement was extended twice. We will hear all sorts of unconfirmed rumors about deals that are being contemplated. Don’t waste your time. The only deal that matters, if there is to be a deal, is the one that is officially announced. Until then, there is nothing we can do (except scuttle negotiations and eliminate any hope of a deal, which is the Republican plan).

We should oppose any efforts by Congress to approve a deal. This is not a treaty. This Congress would not have approved the JPOA, and this Congress would only approve a perfect deal. But a good deal will not be a perfect deal. As much as we would like to permanently and forever rid Iran of all nuclear capacity, that’s not going to happen. An agreement that “would allow a strictly limited and heavily monitored enrichment program” and that would lengthen to at least one year the time it would take Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a single nuclear weapon would be sufficient (the agreement itself would have to last at least ten years).

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