Moving Forward on Iran

By: Ben Perlmutter

In November 2013 the United States and rest of the P5+1—Great Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany—reached an interim nuclear agreement with Iran. The agreement freezes the Iranian nuclear program for six months, starting this past January. In the interim agreement, Iran has agreed to temporarily stop enriching uranium past five percent, a level that is sufficient for civilian energy production, but insufficient for military usage. Additionally, Iran has agreed to “dilute or convert into oxide” its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is easily convertible into weapons-grade uranium, and to not build any new centrifuges or enrichment facilities for the interim agreement period. In return, the United States will provide six billion dollars of sanctions relief to Iran.[1] Several nations and segments of the American electorate have criticized the deal. However, the United States should continue this course of rapprochement with Iran and use this temporary nuclear agreement as a foundation for long-term amicable relations.

Since ceasing formal diplomatic relations following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and subsequent hostage crisis, Iran and the United States have engaged in extremely hostile relations. Even now, the two states conflict over a wide variety of issues, including the Iranian support of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the unauthorized American drone surveillance over Iranian territory. The Iranian nuclear program has been a particularly contentious international political issue. Although Iran claims that the program is only for civilian purposes, many other countries, including the United States, suspect that Iran may be developing a nuclear program for military purposes. This would be in violation of the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear weapons, which Iran has signed. The United States’ responded to the Iranian behavior by issuing a wide array of sanctions against Iran dramatically reducing Iran’s volume of international trade.[2] Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, since taking office in mid-2013, has expressed interest in improving relations with the United States and other Western nations from which Iran has been alienated since the Revolution. Thus far, President Obama has reciprocated.

The interim nuclear agreement is an excellent opportunity for the two countries not only to resolve the issue of the Iranian nuclear program, but also to bring about a long-term improvement of relations. An American rapprochement with Iran could strain relations with the other major American allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, since they are hostile towards Iran. Despite this, an improved relationship would be increasingly valuable for the United States, as the world power’s influence in the Middle East declines due to the imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of the year and the strategic “pivot” towards Asia.

Despite the promise of the interim nuclear agreement and the current talks between Iran and the P5+1, some in the United States do not support the agreement. In December 2013, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey introduced the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 to the Senate. The Bill toughens the current American sanctions against Iran. Any relief would be conditional on the complete demolition of the Iranian nuclear program, a proposition that the Iranians have already rejected. The bill contends that more economic sanctions will pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear program.[3] Although the current sanctions have effectively damaged the Iranian economy, the nuclear program has continued nonetheless.[4] There is no reason to assume that these additional sanctions would cause the nuclear program to cease.

Proponents of new sanctions have agreed to hold off the vote on the legislation until the interim agreement ends, but only after threatening a vote on the legislation during the negotiations.[5] This factionalism within the United States’ government transmits a bad message to the Iranian negotiating partners and the rest of the world. If the United States’ government shows signs of inability to engage in a consistent policy regarding important issues for even a limited amount of time, Iran and other states will be wary of cooperating with the United States.

While it is evident that cooperation with Iran during the interim nuclear agreement is the optimal policy, factions of government continue to pursue other paths, like the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act. Supporters of new sanctions are likely subject to domestic interests, such as The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), compounded with Republican partisan antipathy towards Obama. These issues are causing the supporters to disregard the long-term strategic interests of the nuclear deal for United States.[6] Many lobbying groups support the legislation, including a consortium of 62 multifaith organizations that sent a letter to lawmakers calling for more sanctions because of “what they called Iran’s insincerity.”[7]

AIPAC, a particularly influential group that lobbies for the interests of Israel in the American government, also supports the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act. However, AIPAC recently announced that they would like to delay the vote on the legislation until the Obama administration has more time negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue. The organization stated that “stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support […] and that there should not be a vote at this time on the measure.”[8]

Sixty-two interests groups in addition to AIPAC—including the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, the Islamic Society of North America, Jewish Voice for Peace, and Veterans for Peace—have signed a letter to lawmakers that supports the Obama administration’s efforts at negotiating a lasting nuclear deal.[9]

Despite support for the nuclear agreement amongst interests groups and the administration, 42 Senate Republicans continue to demand a vote on the legislation.[10] These legislators are likely acting out of a pathological partisan animosity towards the Democratic Obama administration, compounded with their hawkish foreign policy ideology. The senators opposed to the negotiations are undermining the strategic interests of the United States in an attempt to advance their personal partisan and ideological agenda. Legislation and public rhetoric promoting sanctions should cease immediately so that the Obama administration can pursue a diplomatic route to end the American hostilities with Iran, which holds promise for not only ending the threat of Iran as a nuclear weapon-holding adversary, but also potentially giving the United States a new regional partner. Passing the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, or similar legislation, would be counter-intuitive to the American national interest. The United States’ government must allow the diplomatic route that the Obama administration is pursuing to play out before considering more sanctions against Iran.

[1] Gordon, Michael R. “Accord Reached With Iran to Halt Nuclear Program.” International New York Times, November 23, 2013.

[2] DeRosa, Dean A., and Gary Hufbauer. Normalization of Economic Relations Consequences for Iran’s Economy and the United States. Report. November 21, 2008.

[3] Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, S. 1881, 113 Cong., (2013), 3-4.

[4] DeRosa and Hufbauer.

[6] Pecquet.

[7] Gladstone, Rick. “Lobbying Picks Up Over Bill to Toughen Antinuclear Sanctions Against Iran.” International New York Times, January 15, 2014.

[8] Pecquet.

[9] Gladstone.


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