In the final few weeks of the negotiations in Vienna, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei surprised all parties by announcing that there will be no cutbacks in the regime’s nuclear enrichment program. Notwithstanding the supreme leader’s letting the cat out of the bag, on the eve of the deadline of nuclear talks in Vienna, as if on cue, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif announced publicly in a New York Times interview a proposal that is designed to give the impression that sufficient progress is being made to warrant an extension of the negotiations. Extending the talks is highly desirable to both the Obama administration and the Tehran regime, but for very different reasons.
Extending the nuclear talks allows President Obama to avoid having to deal with the prospect of military operations to prevent the Iranian regime’s achieving a nuclear weapon breakout capability. Keeping the talks going for months also allows the Iranian regime to continue to replenish its coffers with additional oil export revenues — well over $5 billion just through April 2014 alone — in addition to the $4.2 billion in frozen assets released to Iran. Indeed, the interim agreement has yielded not only substantial sanctions relief, but at least three other significant advantages, as follows: 1) a dramatic reduction in Iran’s inflation; 2) a 2014-2015 GDP expansion, which reverses the contractions of the previous two years; and 3) less aggressive U.S. sanctions enforcement. (See United Against Nuclear Iran’s "Geneva Interim Nuclear Agreement Tracker" for a useful analysis of the interim agreement results.) The Iranian delegation has been very skillful in prolonging the negotiations and taking full advantage of the relaxation of sanctions. After all, it was the crippling sanctions that brought the regime to the negotiating table in the first place.
What have been the consequences of the economic relief the Tehran regime has derived from the interim agreement? We can find no discernible evidence that the Iranian regime has taken direct steps to relieve the burdens on the Iranian people. By relaxing the sanctions and opening the way for normalizing trade with the Iranian regime, the United States has helped subsidize the regime’s nefarious activities in the Middle East. For example, the economic benefits that have accrued to Iran as a result of the interim agreement have significantly offset the costs associated with the Islamic Republic’s support for the Assad regime in Syria. The funds required by Tehran to maintain its flow of Shiite jihadi fighters and military assistance from Iran to Damascus through Iraq were offset by the Obama administration’s relaxation of sanctions. Similarly, the financing needed by the Iranian regime to maintain the deployment in Iraq of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force personnel and equipment and the costs to insert and sustain agents to penetrate the Iraqi security forces also were offset by the economic benefits of the same nuclear interim agreement. Moreover, there has been no letup in Iranian support for Hezbollah and no one doubts that a number of the rockets now raining down on Israel were made in Iran and clandestinely shipped to Gaza. All of these operations require substantial sums of money, and the revenues from the relaxed sanctions have had the effect of lessening Tehran’s burden in managing those costs.
What should we expect as the interim agreement expires on July 20 and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry consults with President Obama on next steps and prepares for meetings with the U.S. Congress? It is likely that Secretary Kerry and his Iranian counterpart will argue for extending the negotiations. For its part, the Obama administration will try to make a persuasive argument that sufficient progress has been made to justify an extension. Ultimately, however, the administration likely will fall back on its often-reiterated view that the only alternative to the nuclear negotiations is a war over halting the Iranian nuclear program. And the American people will not accept that proposition. Tehran is delighted to pocket the Obama administration’s position that there is no alternative to open-ended negotiations. After all, the Islamic Republic is the beneficiary of continued relaxed sanctions.
Only decisive steps by the U.S. Congress that have strong bipartisan support can turn around the current no-win situation in which the Obama administration finds itself. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee leadership and House Foreign Affairs Committee leadership often have demonstrated their ability to forge strong bipartisan support for Iranian sanctions legislation. We call upon that same leadership once again to mobilize strong bipartisan support to help set the Obama administration on a new course of action that rejects open-ended negotiations and resolves the Iranian nuclear issue without resorting to military attacks, on terms that can garner the broad support of the American people.
Here is a set of possible next steps. First, the Senate and House of Representatives should receive Kerry’s report on the status of the negotiations, the results to date, and the administration’s proposal on the way ahead. Congress should ensure it understands the type of enforceable agreement the administration seeks to conclude with the Islamic Republic, key points of agreement, areas of disagreement, and whether the administration will submit any type of agreement reached with the Islamic Republic to the Senate for approval before it can come into effect.
Next, the Senate and House should reach agreement on whether the relaxed sanctions should continue, the full sanctions regime should be reinstated, or additional sanctions should be imposed. Bipartisan sanctions legislation already developed in the Senate and House could be voted on accordingly. Finally, with strong bipartisan support, Congress should seek the administration’s agreement to work with it to develop viable alternative courses of action to pursue without resorting to military operations. In this regard, the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees should hold hearings at the earliest possible dates to hear testimony from Iranian opposition groups on alternative approaches to resolving the Islamic Republic’s nuclear issue without resorting to military strikes.