Showdown on Iran Sanctions

The debate over new Iran sanctions heated up last week, as President Barack Obama called for Congress to “show patience,” while Senate leaders finalized language on two sanctions bills.

The bill sponsored by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) received most of the President’s attention during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron on January 16.  This bill would impose new sanctions after the June 30 negotiating deadline, if no final deal is reached or if Iran reneges on the terms of a deal.  A vote reportedly is expected in the Senate by early March – in advance of a deadline the United States has set for reaching a “framework agreement” with Iran.

The President had nothing good to say about the bill, which he threatened to veto.  He claimed that it would “jeopardize the possibility of getting a deal over the next 60 to 90 days,” would “potentially fray” the global enforcement of existing sanctions, and could “fracture” unity among the P5+1 countries negotiating with Iran.  He also warned that war would become more likely, and that the world would view the United States as the cause of diplomacy’s failure.

Despite the President’s dire predictions, which were echoed by Prime Minister Cameron, would prospective sanctions – taking effect only if talks fail – really cause Iran to walk away?  It seems unlikely.  The talks are in Iran’s interest: they limit some nuclear activity but do not require the dismantlement of any nuclear infrastructure; they provide some sanctions relief and freeze what had been international momentum toward more sanctions; and they have essentially led to an acceptance of uranium enrichment in Iran.  The Kirk-Menendez bill would not threaten any of those gains unless Iran left the negotiating table.

That said, the new sanctions bill would not achieve much now that it would not achieve if passed in July, assuming no agreement is reached by the June 30 deadline.  As President Obama pointed out, Iranian negotiators are keenly aware that it would be easy for the President to get new Iran sanctions through Congress.

The prospect that a final deal may not be achieved is growing.  A series of talks that began on January 14th and concluded on the 18th yielded little.  According to a French negotiator, “the mood was very good, but I don’t think we made a lot of progress.”  In an article in the National Interest on January 14, former State Department negotiator Robert Einhorn argued that throughout 2014, “Iran has not budged on enrichment” or on the term of a final deal.  Unless Iranian leaders “show sufficient flexibility” on these points, “there will be no deal” he argued.  Talks resume in Geneva in early February.

Meanwhile, the State Department quietly imposed additional sanctions on several well-known proliferators late last year, which it announced in a Federal Register notice on December 30.  Using the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act, the State Department designated Iranian entities involved in missile work and their Chinese suppliers, including Milad Jafari, Iran Electronics Industries, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, along with Chinese national Li Fang Wei (Karl Lee) and his company LIMMT (Dalian Sunny Industries), and Beijing-based Wah Cheong Tai Company.  The sanctions apply for two years and ban the U.S. government from procuring from, contracting with, or providing assistance to the entity.