By Amir Hossein Heidarian
There is an escalating row between Congress and President Barack Obama over Iran sanctions and the process of negotiations over that country’s nuclear program. Congress will introduce legislation within the next few weeks that would trigger sanctions if Iran fails to sign on to a compromise by the June 30 deadline for nuclear talks.
The Obama administration has promised to veto any such legislation, arguing that its passage would spell the end of the talks, leading others to blame U.S. overreach for that failure. The president himself said recently, “My main message to Congress at this point is just hold your fire. Nobody around the world, least of all the Iranians, doubt my ability to get additional sanctions passed if these negotiations fail.”
But if the practical result is the same, why does it matter whether we pass the sanctions bill before or after the talks fail?
Contrary to the president’s warnings, there must be something different about the two situations. Advance sanctions legislation leaves no doubt that the United States is serious about securing a favorable nuclear deal. Conversely, the administration’s staunch opposition to that legislation suggests that it is staying true to a soft strategy that may let the Islamic Republic off the hook, whether by giving away sanctions relief in exchange for little Iranian commitment or by merely maintaining the status quo if talks collapse.
The explicit threat of new sanctions does not reduce the degree to which Iran desperately needs the current sanctions to be lifted. The threat simply drives home the knowledge of what is at stake for the Islamic Republic if it does not negotiate in good faith. As the voice of Iranian Americans, we hope that Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) joins her colleague, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in recognizing the need for using all the leverage at our disposal.
At the beginning of the negotiating process, the Obama administration seemingly assumed that the other side would negotiate in good faith, influenced by the supposedly moderate new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. But since then, Rouhani’s record and the persistent anti-Western rhetoric of other regime officials have made it clear that there has been little to none of the expected moderation in Iran’s policies.
In fact, it was the success of U.S.-led sanctions, and not some seachange in the regime’s ideology, that led Iran to come to the negotiating table. If Iran ever actually gives up any of its nuclear ambitions, it will be in response to similar factors. And considering that Iran’s mere presence at the negotiating table has led to limited sanctions relief, it’s going to take an explicit congressional threat to simply bring us the leverage we enjoyed at the beginning of the process.
Global oil prices have fallen by more than 50% since June despite Iran’s pleas to OPEC to cut production and stabilize prices. Independent analysts agree that Iran needs oil prices upwards of $100 a barrel to balance its national budget.
On Jan. 13, Rouhani said in a speech, “breaking the anti-Iran sanctions is the only way to achieve national progress.” As long as the Islamic Republic’s leadership understands this, and as long as the nation’s economy remains in peril, Iran simply cannot afford to walk away from negotiations with the West, and certainly not on the basis of Congress making a threat that everyone already knew was on the table.
Now is the time to exploit low oil prices to break Iran’s pattern of non-cooperation. The Obama administration’s soft strategy has only led Iran to make unreasonable demands and refuse to compromise on essential aspects of a final agreement.
Such unreasonable positions should never lead to the other side of the negotiations being cowed by the fear that the intransigent party will abandon the talks. Rather, western interlocutors should pursue more leverage —something that can certainly be accomplished in the current situation by articulating the economic threat that Iran will face immediately upon the unsuccessful end of negotiations.
If that’s not enough to elicit compromise, then it is high time the U.S. lets Iran walk away. The U.S. will not be at fault for the failure, and contrary to the Obama administration’s warnings, the world will understand this.
Amir Hossein Heidarian, a Mequon resident, is president of the Iranian American Community of Wisconsin.