When President Obama first threatened this month to veto bipartisan legislation authorizing new, conditional sanctions against Iran, he inadvertently admitted that diplomacy cannot succeed without pressure. Obama said on Friday that “if Iran ends up ultimately not being able to say yes . . . I will be the first one to come to Congress and say we need to tighten the screws.”
In other words, the president and Congress agree that Iran should face renewed sanctions pressure if it does not reach a good agreement. The only question is whether the president has enough leverage today to wrest meaningful concessions from Iran, and whether the proposal by Senators Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) would be more credible than the president’s threat to “tighten the screws.”
It is increasingly clear that the administration does not have enough leverage to seal a deal, which is why it has twice extended negotiations while Iran has stuck to its maximalist demands.
This failure has occurred in no small part because the president has implemented the November 2013 interim agreement, called the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), in a manner that is excessively permissive toward Tehran and excessively restrictive toward Washington. In particular, he has chosen to ignore or condone Iranian actions that arguably do not violate the JPOA, but that nevertheless demonstrate Tehran’s determination to develop a nuclear weapon.
Three episodes demonstrate the Obama administration’s leniency toward Tehran:
‐In January 2014, just two months after the JPOA was inked, Tehran announced its intention to proceed with the development of advanced centrifuges that it could use to expedite the enrichment of uranium for a nuclear weapon. The Obama administration relented, and when Iran was caught feeding an advanced centrifuge with uranium gas, in contravention of its obligations under the JPOA, the administration argued that Tehran had not violated the interim deal.
‐In December 2014, a United Nations panel of experts reported that Iran had engaged in “an increase in [Iranian] procurement on behalf” of the Arak nuclear facility, which a former Obama-administration official has called a “plutonium-bomb factory.” In response, the administration again argued that Iran had not violated the interim deal.
In sum, Iran has enjoyed a one-year pass for centrifuge development, procurement for the Arak reactor, and whetting its nuclear appetite. It should be no surprise that the Obama administration’s inactivity has undermined America’s leverage at the table, or that the president’s threat to reimpose sanctions lacks credibility. As Senator Bob Casey (D., Pa.) recently said, “I worry that over time that these current sanctions have less significance.”
In contrast to their leniency towards Tehran, Obama and his team argue that their own hands are tied by the interim deal. This point was made by Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, when she said earlier this month that “if there’s a bill that’s signed into law . . . in our mind it is a violation of the Joint Plan of Action.”
Harf was speaking with regard to the JPOA’s requirement that the United States “refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions” on Iran during negotiations. Of course, Senators Kirk and Menendez have been careful to frame their proposal to ensure that no new sanctions would come into effect until after the June 30 deadline for talks. This is why Senator Menendez has described the effort as a “diplomatic insurance policy,” and why it is indeed consistent with U.S. commitments under the JPOA.
Such a diplomatic insurance policy would send the type of message that the Obama administration’s lax enforcement of the JPOA has not — that the United States is serious about the deadline for nuclear talks, and will respond to further Iranian stonewalling with serious pressure.
If Americans want these talks to end Iran’s nuclear ambitions peacefully, then our negotiators must be provided with a maximum of both leverage and credibility. Congressional passage of bipartisan legislation to increase pressure on Iran would do just that, and thus increase the prospect of success at the negotiating table.
— Christopher J. Griffin is the executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.