The Obama administration enters the year locked in a battle with Congress over whether to plow ahead with new economic sanctions against Iran or cautiously wait to see if last year's breakthrough nuclear agreement holds.
The new sanctions, widely endorsed by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, would blacklist several Iranian industrial sectors and threaten banks and companies around the world with being banned from the U.S. market if they help Iran export any more oil. The provisions would only take effect if Tehran violates the interim nuclear deal or lets it expire without a follow-up accord.
The House already approved similar legislation last July by a 400-20 vote and would likely pass the new sanctions by an overwhelming margin. But the Obama administration, fearful of squandering a historic diplomatic opportunity to end the nuclear crisis, has succeeded so far in holding off a Senate vote.
The standoff has prompted sharp barbs from both sides.
The Nov. 24 agreement "makes a nuclear Iran more likely," argued Sen. Marco Rubio. Fellow Republican Sen. John Cornyn called it an attempt to distract attention from President Barack Obama's health care rollout. "We really haven't gained anything," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said. The deal "falls short of what is necessary for security and stability in the region," added Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.
White House press secretary Jay Carney has accused lawmakers of trying to spoil negotiations in Geneva as part of a "march to war." Before breaking for winter vacation, Obama suggested the sanctions push from members of Congress reflected the "politics of trying to look tough on Iran."
The rhetoric has exacerbated what is essentially a debate over tactics, not substance. All want to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
But the prevention strategies differ strikingly over the role additional sanctions might play as negotiators try to end the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
A summary of arguments for and against new sanctions:
For new sanctions
BAD DEAL: Many Republicans and Democrats in Congress criticize the Geneva deal as unbalanced: some $7 billion in sanctions relief to Iran for only freezing, not dismantling, parts of its nuclear program. With the ink barely dry, key lawmakers launched their sanctions push, backed by powerful pro-Israel lobbying groups. Sanctions proponents say they must act to prevent Iran from acquiring new nuclear "rights" through the agreement and permanently benefiting from eased economic conditions. With companies looking to invest in Iran again, they say the threat of future economic restrictions prevents the Iranian government from raking in new cash for nuclear-related activity.
URGENCY: More than six weeks post-Geneva, the deal isn't technically in force. Negotiators are still working on an implementation agreement to begin the six-month clock. The delay, sanctions advocates warn, is typical of Iran's drawing out diplomatic processes while edging closer to nuclear weapons capability. Implementation arrangements could be finalized as early as Friday. But many lawmakers note how Iranian President Hassan Rouhani regularly used delaying tactics as Iran's top nuclear negotiator a decade ago, and say the U.S. should not negotiate at Iran's preferred pace while its nuclear centrifuges continue spinning. New sanctions can accelerate the diplomacy, argued Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., as he unveiled the sanctions bill last month.
INSURANCE: Iran's nuclear record also is replete with deception. Its approach to negotiations is often compared with North Korea's before it became a nuclear power a decade ago. The sanctions bill would require the Obama administration to certify Iran's adherence to the nuclear deal every 30 days. Without that certification, the new sanctions start immediately — without the need for additional diplomatic talks or congressional hearings. "The American people need an insurance policy to prevent a rerun of North Korea," says Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., co-drafter of the legislation.
LEVERAGE: The view in Congress is almost unanimous: Sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table. Many members go a step further and say more economic pressure now can break the will of Iran's leaders and lead to terms Congress would consider acceptable in any final agreement. The new sanctions package "creates the flexibility for diplomacy," says Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Against new sanctions
TIMING: The Obama administration says the point of sanctions was to pressure Iran into negotiating limits on its nuclear program. Now that Iran is doing that, U.S. officials say fresh sanctions are pointless and perhaps counterproductive as the world tests Iran. Congress, they warn, is providing ammunition to Iranian hardliners who want to undermine Rouhani's more moderate approach. Billions of dollars in U.S. sanctions remain in force already. And if Iran cheats or diplomacy fails, more sanctions could always come then. "There is no need for new sanctions legislation, not yet," Obama said at his year-end news conference.
BAD FAITH: As part of the interim deal, the U.S. promised Iran no new nuclear-related economic penalties for six months. A new round of sanctions, even though conditionally suspended, may stop short of breaking the agreement but could push Iran to quit negotiations — or issue its own threats of future action. Neither response serves U.S. national interests, administration officials say. America's international partners, who've invested years trying to resolve the crisis peacefully, could also blame Washington and question U.S. laws against investing in Iran. New sanctions, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress last month, "could lead our international partners to think that we're not an honest broker."
UNREALISTIC GOALS: The sanctions bill in Congress insists Iran halt all uranium enrichment, a demand long ceded by U.S., European and other negotiators. In Geneva, world powers implicitly recognized Iran's ability to enrich at levels below what is needed to produce weapons-grade material. By making the complete end to enrichment a requirement for any final deal, the administration fears Congress is setting the bar so high that diplomacy cannot succeed. That would make two worrying scenarios more likely: Iran acquiring nuclear weapons or the U.S. being forced to resort to military action.
ENFORCEABILITY: The administration also considers some of the proposed sanctions ill-conceived. The bill demands wide-ranging U.S. economic consequences for countries such as Japan and China if they import Iranian petroleum after 2015. U.S. officials say such provisions would alienate crucial partners and tempt governments to simply ignore American legislation. If Beijing or Tokyo failed to comply, the U.S. could hardly cut Chinese or Japanese banks out of the U.S. market. The result could be a weakening, not strengthening, of global Iran sanctions.