Paul Pillar

Congress Hinders Progress on Iran

The latest indication of how sanctions-imposing initiatives in Congress have deteriorated into mindless Iran-bashing is how the Obama administration has had to weigh in on the writing of the defense authorization bill to minimize the damage it does to U.S. diplomacy on Iran. Bear in mind that the administration and the Congressional protagonists are, on the face of it, seeking the same thing: policies in Tehran that assure the rest of the world that Iran is not making and will not make a nuclear weapon. The president, like the protagonists in Congress, has pronounced an Iranian nuclear weapon to be unacceptable. The president, also like members of Congress, sees the imposition of harsh economic sanctions on Iran as a major tool in trying to achieve the desired result. In fact, in the recent election campaign the Obama camp made a rather big deal out of how the most extensive sanctions ever imposed on Iran had been put in place during the current administration.

In other words, there does not appear to be disagreement on fundamental objectives—unlike with, say, the current main event of political combat along Pennsylvania Avenue—i.e., the one about budgets and taxes—where there is disagreement on some rather fundamental questions about burden-sharing and the like. Therefore—again, if we take stated objectives about Iran at face value—any disagreement between the administration and members of Congress concerns tactical judgments about what combination of policies and tools has the best chance of getting closer to the shared objective of foreclosing the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. The administration sees, with good reason, the additional sanctions that Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) want to include in the defense bill as complicating rather than facilitating movement toward that objective. The sanctions that have already been piled on have passed the point where they start decreasing rather than increasing the president's negotiating strength and flexibility in trying to cut a deal with Iran. An administration aide stated that provisions in the bill about sanctions also “would be impossible to enforce and only make our allies really angry. They would have endangered their cooperation with the sanctions we have now.”

It should be clear from the history of the past couple of years, as well as a little thought about incentives for Iranian policymakers, that simply piling on still more sanctions without more Western flexibility at the negotiating table will not attain the U.S. objective. The sanctions are hurting Iran and are a major reason Iran wants to negotiate a deal. But the Iranians have dismissed the only sanctions relief that has been offered so far as peanuts, which it is. They have no reason to make significant concessions if they don't think they will be getting anything significant in return. If members of Congress were really interested in inducing changes in Iran's policy and behavior, they would be devoting as much time and energy to asking why the powers negotiating with Iran evidently do not intend to depart much from their failed negotiating formulas of the past as they would in trying to find some new sanction to impose.

There are two possible explanations for why members of Congress are making trouble on this issue despite the ostensibly shared objective. One is that some members may actually naively believe that if turning the screws hasn't yet gotten the Iranians to cry uncle, then all we need to do is to turn them some more. The other explanation is that it is a mistake to take the stated objectives at face value and that for some members getting a negotiated agreement with Iran is less important than their own posturing, which is based on the belief that Iran-bashing and Iran-pressuring is always good politics. Menendez gave some indication of this when he refused Harry Reid's request for a voice vote on his sanctions amendment and insisted on a roll call vote, which slowed the legislative process down but put everyone's hard-line anti-Iran chops on the record.

Menendez's conduct on the Iran issue underscores an additional complication for the president as he considers candidates to replace Secretary of State Clinton. Appointing the otherwise well-qualified John Kerry would mean not only giving up a Senate seat that Massachusetts Republicans may recapture but also having the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee probably pass to Menendez. This would mean not only losing a constructive force in this key foreign policy position but also having it replaced by a destructive influence.

Image: Flickr/Valeriy Osipov.