WASHINGTON – Speaking directly to US lawmakers and the American president, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif issued a warning on Monday that the deal that world powers cut with Iran over its nuclear program last month would be “entirely dead” if Congress passed additional sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
“We do not like to negotiate under duress,” the top Iranian diplomat said in an interview with TIME magazine. “And if Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and a lack of desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States.”
Zarif has a point: In one provision of the deal, the White House agreed on behalf of the entire government that “the US administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”
The problem is how one defines “sanctions.”
With reporters and lawmakers alike using the term as a catchall, many sanctions experts do not consider new mechanisms introduced to enforce existing sanctions legislation as brand new penalties per se, but simply new tools to make sure there are no leaks in the newly installed pipes.
New tools are necessary, argues a relatively united Congress, because Iran continues to find new subterfuges to avoid existing sanctions. Tehran may interpret the passage of new legislation that tightens the screws as a violation of the deal; but to ignore Iran’s tactics is, by default, to allow for easing sanctions beyond the $7 billion in relief stipulated in the interim deal.
Also imbedded in the language of last month’s deal – which involves Iran freezing enrichment for six months – is the possibility of an extension of that timetable to a full year, should all parties agree that more time is required.
Congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez and their Republican counterparts – under pressure from groups closely allied with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – will not be keen on tolerating an extension of any length; they are already afraid that the Geneva deal may crystalize into a status quo.
The bill that Reid is considering includes new sanctions, as well as enforcement mechanisms that will only kick in after the six-month timeframe, and only if Iran and the P5+1 powers – the US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany – fail to reach a final-status accord.
The new sanctions would be punishing: Iran’s oil exports have already been cut over 60 percent since 2011, and the legislation aims to bring that down another 50%, punishing international buyers who continue to buy Iranian crude.
At the Saban Forum of the Brookings Institution on Saturday, US President Barack Obama said that close allies of the United States had to see that the US was serious about diplomacy– and that countries like Japan, South Korea, India and China would not take kindly to further cuts on oil.
Now, Zarif has directly threatened Reid’s bill, which the top Democrat publicly vowed would see a vote by the end of the year.
Reid is a close ally of the president and has experienced significant pressure from the White House to renege on his word.
But his colleagues in the Senate, Democratic and Republican alike, view this bill as a moderate compromise that accommodates the possibility of peace through diplomacy.
The White House fears that the deal will give Iran an excuse to walk away, and seeks maximum flexibility as it enters one of the most difficult international negotiations in decades.
If Reid does not give the bill a vote, he will have to play whack-a-mole with a litany of efforts from senators on both sides to move ahead by other means. Some senators have prepared bills of their own and will attempt to attach them as amendments to any number of completely unrelated bills.
If he wants Congress to hold off, Obama will have to rely on Reid to hold back significant bipartisan pressures. And his administration will have to explain to its counterparts in Tehran that despite its best efforts, stopgaps will not be tolerated for much longer on Capitol Hill.