FPI Bulletin: Iran Talks Extension Gives Congress Opportunity to Act

November 25, 2014

Iran and the P5+1 decided on Monday to extend nuclear negotiations until June 30, 2015, marking the second extension of talks since the parties signed the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) in November 2013. While the extension will give Iran more time to develop its nuclear and missile programs, it also presents the President and Congress with an opportunity to force Tehran to choose between dismantling its nuclear program and facing economic collapse.

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama threatened to veto new Iran sanctions legislation, effectively neutralizing any congressional role in the negotiations for the remainder of the year. At the same time, he said, “if Iran’s leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions, and stand ready to exercise all options to make sure Iran does not build a nuclear weapon.”

Iran’s leaders have so far rejected the opportunity. The P5+1 spent the year issuing proposals that inched ever closer to Iran’s demands, while Tehran pocketed billions of dollars in sanctions relief and continued to develop its nuclear infrastructure without dismantling a single centrifuge.

Secretary of State John Kerry has said that the talks “will not be open-ended,” but the repeated extensions suggest that they may as well be. Given the P5+1’s record of unreciprocated concessions, Iran has everything to gain by extending the negotiations for as long as its interlocutors are willing to do the same.

The United States should adopt a new approach rooted in the recognition that Iran has so far exploited Western goodwill and desperation in the nuclear talks. Otherwise, the Obama administration is unlikely to achieve in the next seven months what it has failed to achieve in the past year.

That’s where Congress comes in.

Although the president said he would “be the first to call for more sanctions” in the event of Iranian intransigence, that responsibility has instead fallen to the legislative branch, which has offered dozens of proposals despite opposition from the White House.

By the time President Obama delivered his 2014 State of the Union address, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, which would impose sanctions-in-waiting on Iran, had already received 59 Senate cosponsors, just eight votes shy of overcoming a presidential veto. (The total today is 60, and includes 17 Democrats.) Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) refused to even bring the legislation or any other bill concerning Iran up for a vote.

When the new Congress is sworn in next January, that dynamic will change. The incoming majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), will likely allow a sanctions bill to receive a vote on the Senate floor, while growing Democratic skepticism over the talks may enable the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act or similar legislation to attain a veto-proof majority. Under such circumstances, the Obama administration’s current strategy will prove unsustainable: it will need to negotiate not only with Iran, but with Congress as well.

Rather than fight this new reality, President Obama should seize the opportunity it presents. He should announce that he will seek the passage of new sanctions-in-waiting legislation as quickly as possible and that Tehran must make meaningful concessions on its nuclear program if it wants to avoid an economic catastrophe.

If both the President and Congress make clear that the latest extension will constitute the final one, they will demonstrate their resolve to achieve what each says is their shared objective – preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capability.

In addition, a serious effort to strengthen Syria’s moderate opposition in the fight against both the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad would also put Tehran on notice that the administration will not roll over while Iran expands its influence across the Middle East.

On Tuesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared the seven-month extension a victory: “On the nuclear issue, the United States and European colonialist countries gathered and applied their entire efforts to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees but they could not and they will not.” The United States certainly has the ability to deny the Supreme Leader another such victory. Whether the Obama administration harbors the will remains to be seen.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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