There’s a chance at a diplomatic solution for the longstanding impasse with Iran. It needs to be given a chance
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has had a tumultuous three months in office. After campaigning on a moderate plank and eking out a shock victory, he garnered enough support within the country for negotiations with the P5+1. He even managed to get the grudging support of the Ayatollah. He and his team of negotiators have hammered out a historic deal where Iran would cap its uranium enrichment at 3.5 percent, and in return, the US would relax sanctions worth USD 7 billion against the economically-stricken country. To emphasize the magnitude of this deal, every US president since Carter has been trying to hammer out a deal with the Iranians; President Obama is the only one who has got a deal. Wide-ranging sanctions have cut deep into the Iranian economy, and it has had a telling impact on the political landscape of Iran. The deal struck Sunday in Geneva will allow countries to buy more Iranian oil, and releases USD 4.2 billion in cash from oil sales, ends the limits on gold and Iran’s auto sector, and comes as a much-needed reprieve for the Iranian economy. This agreement wasn’t well received by US allies in the region, with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu calling it a ‘historic mistake’, and long-time ally Saudi Arabia shifting nervously. But the sentiment back in the US is still that of distrust, with renewed calls for further sanctions in spite of the deal. They argue that the sanctions have brought Iran to the negotiating table; they need to strike now and impose further sanctions to get Iran to halt its nuclear program completely. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) encapsulated this, when he said “How do you define an Iranian moderate? That’s an Iranian who’s out of bullets and money.”
The Geneva deal was the result of a year-long diplomatic effort, with both sides playing a high-stakes, high-risk game. Reports had emerged that the Iranian negotiators had come close to walking out, and the mood was only worsened with French diplomats refusing to cede ground, aided by the occasional inflammatory comment by the Ayatollah back home. But it was under the sceptre of further sanctions by the US Congress – which Obama and Sen. Kerry stalled – that the agreement finally came through. Russia and China – Iran’s strongest allies – worked alongside Germany to bring about this deal, and the international community hopes that this will be the first step towards a significant reconciliation between Iran and the West.
But is it possible for the US Congress to undo all of this work? Economic sanctions against Iran have mostly been executive decisions by the President, and it is the relaxation of these that the US administration has promised – Congress has little say in these matters. The US Congress does have the power to regulate foreign commerce, as granted by the Constitution. Reversing sanctions imposed by them would require the administration to go through both the Republican-controlled House of Representatives (R:D::234:210), and the Senate (R:D::45:53). There has been vocal support from both sides of the aisle for this move. The Obama administration has had an unspectacular few months, and faces low approval ratings among the public and in the corridors of power. The inefficiency in implementing Obama’s landmark Affordable Healthcare Act has become a central talking point, and the criticism for Sen. Kerry’s arbitrary red line for the Syrian chemical weapons incident hasn’t waned. It’s fair to say that that the Obama administration doesn’t have the political mileage to reverse these congressional sanctions if they go through.
The impact of further sanctions on the negotiations might be far-reaching. The Obama administration would suffer a great loss in credibility, and it might test the resolve of the other members of the EU, lending greater strength to Netanyahu and other opponents of the deal. Any future negotiations would be happen under the looming shadow of this setback, and it would present a massive obstacle for any diplomatic solution. From the Iranians, it would grant further ammunition to the hardliners, and serve to further isolate them from the international stage. Rescinding this agreement might even disincentivize them from accepting any form of international regulation of their nuclear program in the future. It may drive the program underground, and that would be a major setback for the international community.
The US House of Representatives passed the last round of Iranian sanctions in July, by a vote of 400-20. The Bill has stalled in the Senate though, where the Democrats have a slim majority; it bought the administration valuable time and created the pressure environment to hammer out this exploratory, yet significant deal. Both parties have worked on putting aside decades of distrust to come to the negotiating table and actually agreed on something. Rouhani was elected to office on the promise to restore Iran’s economy and improve relations with the West. His victory indicates the growing resentment of the Iranian people to Ahmadinejad’s brand of provocative politics and the Ayatollah’s anti-West rhetoric. There is an appetite for change in Iran, and Rouhani has made overt moves towards the West for international acceptance – cue his speech at the UN General Assembly. Lawmakers in the US need to recognize and acknowledge this, and not do anything that could potentially sabotage this fragile solution. There’s a chance at a diplomatic solution for this longstanding impasse. It needs to be given a chance.
Adarsh Mathew is an intern at the Takshashila Institution.