The President Should Thank Congress for Sanctions Bill | Commentary

Posted February 9, 2015 at 4:04pm

President Barack Obama’s argument against the Iran sanctions bill is that it will collapse negotiations, making war increasingly likely as the only available option to stop a nuclear-armed Iran. On the contrary, the bill should be endorsed as the best chance to avoid war.

Those who are unfamiliar with the bill come away from the president’s remarks thinking Congress is trying to immediately sanction Iran, thereby breaking the interim agreement and ending the talks.

The key detail that is always left out is that the sanctions are only implemented if the talks fail to produce an agreement by the June 30 deadline. And even once that date is reached, the president can waiver the sanctions every month for the rest of his term if he so chooses. In other words, the bill does not take an ounce of power away from the president in dealing with Iran.

It is difficult to understand the rationale for a presidential veto of this bill when all it does is strengthen his hand at the negotiating table. The only explanation is that the president believes that Congress passing this bill will be interpreted by Iran as proof that the U.S. is not negotiating in good faith and will walk away.

This logic does not add up. On the one hand, the administration boasts that its combination of diplomatic outreach and sanctions forced Iran to the negotiating table. Yet, now we’re told that a bill authorizing tough sanctions in the future will force Iran away from the negotiating table.

The Treasury Department is boasting that Iran has its “back to the wall” because the economy is dependent upon a deal that lifts the sanctions. The low oil prices put Iran at an even greater position of weakness, since its budgeting is so dependent upon oil exports, increasing the pain of sanctions exponentially.

Again, this is all the more reason to pass the bill. If Iran is in desperate need of a nuclear deal so sanctions can be lifted, then it won’t abandon talks over a bill that merely threatens sanctions in the future.

This bill is exactly what President Barack Obama needs in order to maximize the chances that his diplomacy will succeed. He fails to see this benefit and, even more appallingly, seems unable to understand his opponents’ points of view.

When Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., confronted Obama last month, the president reportedly replied that he understands members of Congress have to cater to special interests and donors. That telling moment displayed a remarkably condescending assumption that the bill’s supporters must be driven by dishonesty; as if their disagreements with the administration couldn’t possibly be reasonable. Menendez is said to have rightfully stated he took “personal offense” to the comment.

The bill is important for another reason.

At this very moment, Iran is trying to entice foreign companies with potentially lucrative contracts if sanctions are lifted. The regime is also talking up the possibility of exporting natural gas to Europe, an extremely tempting proposal for NATO members because of their dependency upon an increasingly hostile Russia.

Iran has three main objectives here.

First, it is hoping that powerful businesses will pressure the West into a deal that is as favorable to Iran as possible.

Secondly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani acknowledges the country is in need of foreign investment. These contracts will help stabilize the regime and decrease Iran’s vulnerability to sanctions by developing weak sectors.

And third, Iran hopes to shield itself from sanctions in the future by splitting the international community. If Iran can become immune to pressure then it is free to act as it wishes, whether that means developing nuclear weapons, waging proxy warfare as recently seen in Yemen or continuing gross violations of human rights.

The sanctions bill will make big businesses think twice about counting on Iran as a massive growth opportunity. Foreign companies considering investing in Iran should be made to understand that they could be sanctioned directly as a result.

The Iranian regime is thinking long-term. It is willing to take a step back in restricting its nuclear activity in order to take two giant leaps forward later as described. Passing the sanctions bill will put unprecedented pressure on Iran and help us see whether the Iranian regime is actually willing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

Ryan Mauro is the national security analyst for the Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security.