The most disingenuous argument for sanctions yet

The hopeful signs are significant--Hassan Rouhani was just sworn in as president after running on a platform of moderation and reconciliation with the West, and he has sent strong signals he wants to engage productively to resolve the nuclear issue. The new president’s chief of staff is a U.S. green card carrying, American educated pragmatist, and his nominee for foreign minister--the man likely to lead nuclear negotiations--is someone who has enjoyed positive relations and praise from everyone from Joe Biden to Jack Straw. New talks could start in a matter of weeks.

Those interested in ensuring Iran doesn’t build the bomb should welcome these developments and test the opportunity now before us. Yet the organized cries from neoconservative hardliners calling for an escalation of sanctions and war threats have suddenly reached a fever pitch. In The Wall Street Journal this week, Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) proclaimed, “Without Stronger Sanctions, Iran Will Go Nuclear.”

Meanwhile, groups like the Israel Project, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and AIPAC are pushing for new sanctions legislation that would give hardliners in Iran opposed to compromise with the West the upper hand.

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Why pass new sanctions that will drain Iran’s moderates of domestic political capital, slam shut the window for what may be the last best chance to constrain Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy, and risk shattering international unity on Iran?

The answer is simple. For some, just like Iraq was not about WMD, Iran is not about nukes. The hardliners are not interested in a deal to ensure Iran doesn’t get the bomb. Senator Kirk’s friend Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) has already announced that he has a war resolution in the queue that he’s planning to introduce in just two months time. If the pro-war crowd can block the last best chance for a negotiated solution by forcing through just one more round of sanctions, they think they can finally move on to Operation Lets-Repeat-Iraq-In-Iran.

Many in Congress are ready and willing to test whether this is the moment for a deal. That’s why 131 Members in the House sent a letter to Obama urging new talks and stating that “bilateral and multilateral sanctions must be calibrated in such a way that they induce significant and verifiable concessions from Iran at the negotiating table in exchange for their potential relaxation.” And according to Kirk and Engel, many of their colleagues on the Hill are “answering no” to the question of whether new sanctions should be imposed on Iran at this moment. For the pragmatists in Congress who may vote with the herd but think carefully when it comes to questions like whether we should start World War III with Iran, the sanctions’ success is not measured by how much damage they can do to Iran’s economy, but instead by whether they can be traded in for a deal that ensures Iran doesn’t get the bomb.

This is not good news for hardliners like Engel and Kirk. Previously, the pair have worked to eliminate the president's ability to trade in sanctions for concessions. The House sanctions bill that Engel helped ram through significantly and stridently erodes the President’s authority to waive sanctions. And in the Senate, Kirk has been circulating a proposal that would make it impossible to lift sanctions unless Iran transitions to a democratic government--in other words, requiring regime change, a deliberate nonstarter for negotiations. If Kirk were interested in democraticization, he would heed the call of the Iranian political prisoners who last week penned a stark open letter rejecting sanctions and calling for Obama to halt the measures they say they are undermining Iranian human rights and democracy defenders. But Kirk’s goal is not democracy or a nuclear deal, it is to block diplomacy and take us into another military adventure.

However, with the Iran policy narrative starting to shift in Washington, hardliners have apparently decided to shift--at least rhetorically--on the point of whether sanctions can be used as leverage at the negotiating table. In their Wall Street Journal piece, Kirk and Engel argue that instead of pursuing a diplomatic deal now, the U.S. should pass one more round sanctions in order to bring Iran to the “verge of economic collapse.” Then, they say, the U.S. can finally “convert that leverage into a diplomatic solution.” Like a pair of sanctions junkies, they swear they want just one more hit before they finally kick the habit.

But if Kirk and Engel and the groups pushing more sanctions have sincerely come around on the need to allow the President to trade in the sanctions at the negotiating table--rather than just appropriating the concept as a tactical maneuver to delay and kill a new round of talks--it begs the question: why can’t we use the leverage we already have, right now, when Iran’s new president has a popular mandate and fairly significant political capital for a deal? The existing sanctions are indeed having a massive impact on Iran’s economy; if the intent is to use them as diplomatic leverage, this moment looks a lot like the inflection point to put them on the table for a deal. But for some who are desperate for a military standoff with Iran, a diplomatic resolution is a far bigger threat than an Iranian nuclear weapon, and more sanctions is the perfect way to take diplomacy off the table.

Abdi is the policy director for the National Iranian American Council.

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