Pause on additional Iran sanctions crucial to negotiations

The Nov. 7-8 negotiations between Iran and six world powers (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) could prove to be a critical point in the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Iran has demonstrated a different tone and approach to nuclear negotiations since the June 14 election of Hassan Rouhani as president. Nothing concrete has emerged yet, but the U.S. negotiating team, headed by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, has described the last round of negotiations as positive and different from previous sessions with the Iranian team under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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Rouhani’s election and, more importantly, Iran’s dire economic condition are the reasons for Tehran’s new approach. Some have taken this to mean that more sanctions are needed. However, just because Tehran is seeking to ease the pressure brought on by the sanctions that exist today does not mean that it will yield to new sanctions tomorrow.

Rouhani has a limited mandate to solve the nuclear crisis and lift sanctions. However, more radical elements of the Iranian political system, marginalized for now, are waiting for him to fail. They believe that the American government is either duplicitous or will be unable to deliver a deal. New sanctions would confirm their view and further their goals of ending negotiations and sidelining Rouhani.

New sanctions passed before a true test of Iran’s intentions could result in a bleak future: a risky and costly war with Iran with no guarantee of success, or the acceptance of an increasingly embittered, isolated, repressive and nuclear capable Islamic Republic.

The Iranian people have borne the brunt of sanctions, but it would be hard to argue that the Iranian regime has not felt the pressure as well.

Sanctions have led to a drastic cut in Iranian oil exports, a depreciation of the Iranian currency and rising inflation. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Iranians have become unemployed or lost their savings. And many of the elite have been affected as well. Some Iranians might be getting rich off the sanctions, but the vast majority of Iranian economic actors — from bazaar merchants to the Revolutionary Guard to independent tycoons — are closely linked to the state, and depend on Iran’s oil income.

Moreover, Iran’s lack of access to the global financial system has meant a drastic reduction in non-oil exports, decreased domestic manufacturing and a potentially dangerous real estate bubble in Tehran.

It is not surprising that Rouhani, who once negotiated a suspension of the nuclear program with the Europeans, has been given the mandate to solve Iran’s crisis with the world. And it appears that thus far the new Iranian president is unwilling or incapable of addressing other major issues such as political reforms. For now, Rouhani has his hands quite full with the nuclear program.

And it is this crucial portfolio that could determine his fate.

He has the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard, without which he would not be able to negotiate or even run his government. But Khamenei and the Guard are under no illusion that negotiations are sure to succeed; nor are they willing to continue negotiations under humiliating conditions. Sanctions are a danger to their rule, but weakness in the face of pressure might be no less a threat. They must give Rouhani a chance because the Iranian people and key political constituents support negotiations. The viability of Rouhani’s platform of moderation and engagement with the West hangs in balance. Khamenei and hard-line Guard are willing to “test” America as much as the Obama administration is willing to “test” Tehran.

New sanctions under consideration by Congress could lead to a weakening of the overall U.S. position. First, Rouhani could lose his mandate to continue negotiations. Second, Iran could begin to undermine the international coalition that has created the harshest peacetime sanctions in history. Rouhani, weakened at home but still respected abroad, could persuade major Iranian oil buyers such as China, India, Japan and even European that Iran attempted to negotiate in good faith but was rebuffed by the United States. Third, Iran could successfully cause a split between the group. China and Russia might believe that Congress wants regime change in Iran instead of a diplomatic solution. Germany, which has close business ties with Iran, could become unhappy about its economic sacrifices. And even the U.K. and France could begin to doubt U.S. intentions.

Congress deserves credit for pressuring the Iranian regime, but it should pause the march toward new sanctions to give the negotiations a chance. Current sanctions against Iran are effective, and new sanctions can always be imposed if Iran does not budge. A smart approach toward Iran does not only entail creating pressure but using it correctly, and for the right goals.

Nader is a senior international policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.