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The making of an Iraq sequel with Iran

The House is poised to pass another round of harsh sanctions on Iran, ignoring the many prominent former government officials, diplomats, military officers, and national security experts who have warned that imposing additional sanctions at this time could undermine ongoing nuclear negotiations.

The House’s bungling attempt to conduct foreign policy through pressure shows an unfortunate failure to understand how diplomacy works. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ recent letter to President Obama calling for more sanctions notes the expansion of Iran’s enrichment capability and the need for U.S. “diplomacy and sanctions strategies to reflect these dangerous realities.” Indeed they should. But ratcheting up the pressure as the letter demands will not hasten diplomatic progress; it will delay it.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is reportedly cooking up a sanctions bill that would make Iran’s transition to a “free and democratically elected government” – in short, regime change – a precondition for sanctions to be lifted. You don’t have to be a historian to know that we followed the same procedure not long ago with Iraq and know how it ends: war.

The truth of the matter is that sanctions have become more punitive than purposeful. For instance, instead of keeping the pathway to relief clear in order to encourage Iran to make a deal that brings greater transparency to its nuclear program, Congress has tied sanctions to extraneous issues ranging from human rights to democracy to the independence of Iran’s judiciary. The International Crisis Group’s recent report on Iran concluded that “all in all, the sanctions’ multi-purpose and multi-layered nature has confused their strategic purpose” and likened the possible consequence to using a chainsaw for a dispute resolution process that requires a scalpel.

Adding more sanctions before the next round of talks would also signal that Rouhani’s conciliatory remarks about pursuing a “policy of reconciliation” have fallen on deaf ears. It is perplexing that some of those who want to take credit for his election appear eager to discredit him – and, in a sense, themselves – by putting the sanctions blowtorch to the diplomatic bridge he is trying to build.

The good news is that there are some on Capitol Hill who are growing wary that sanctioning may become an answer in search of a problem and want to give Rouhani a chance. A letter circulated in the House by Reps. Charles Dent (R-Pa.) and David Price (D-N.C.) calling for reinvigorated diplomacy to make the most of talks is gaining momentum and signatures.

The letter is a rare and welcome sign that Congress appreciates the sensitivity of negotiations. And yet it still falls short of fully embracing reciprocity, as the letter calls for “significant and verifiable” steps from Iran in exchange for mere “potential” sanctions relief. If the United States wants significant and verifiable moves from Iran, then it must make clear its intention to respond in-kind.

One of the main barriers to Iran placing faith in confidence building deals is that it believes that the enmity the United States has towards it is institutionalized. Thus, Congress has an extremely important role to play in either affirming that suspicion or disproving it.

What it should be doing now is not what it did with Iraq – limiting its role to a sanctioning machine with layer upon layer of demands for change that even some U.S. allies could not fulfill in exchange for sanctions relief.

Having long proved its point about its ability to impose costs on Iran, now is the time for Congress to show some ingenuity by clearing the pathway to relief and affirming its support for quid pro quo diplomacy with the same conviction it voices its concerns about security. These parallel objectives should be considered two sides of the same policy coin. The opportunity is there, if only Congress would act on it.

Jansson is the special projects director for the Federation of American Scientists, the country’s longest-serving organization committed to addressing nuclear threats.

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