WASHINGTON, November 12, 2013 — Even without a final nuclear deal with Iran, this weekend’s intensive negotiations in Geneva resulted in major diplomatic achievements that warrant mention. First and foremost, since direct contact between U.S. and Iranian diplomats has long been unthinkable, the fact that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif are talking to each other is a good thing.
More progress was made in U.S.-Iran relations from these three days of talks than at any point in the last three decades. Most notably, Iran is allowing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency much broader access to nuclear sites long-unseen. That is a diplomatic achievement in and of itself.
These one-on-one conversations between the United States and Iran were crucial to the progress made toward a deal that will be a substantial step forward in guarding against another nuclear-armed nation and another Middle East war. Despite French objection to specific details of the deal at the eleventh hour, diplomats from all seven countries involved in the talks have another opportunity to reach a preliminary accord when they meet on November 20.
Providing neither the French nor the U.S. Congress get in the way, the parties are close to a deal that would be unprecedented. It imposes limits on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program for six months in exchange for small relief from sanctions, which have devastated Iran’s economy. It addresses the most urgent areas of concern vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program, while laying the groundwork for a comprehensive agreement to prevent weaponization over the long-term.
This is what diplomacy looks like. And this is exactly the kind of deal a U.S. Secretary of State should be brokering. Yet some members of Congress refuse to accept a win, and could sabotage the deal even before the parties meet next week by imposing new sanctions. House majority leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has already trashed efforts toward a deal, saying that, “any agreement that does not require the full and complete halting of the Iranian nuclear program is worse than no deal at all.” Cantor’s nay saying of diplomacy with Iran is longstanding, though recently outmatched by his Super PAC funder, Sheldon Adelson, who called for President Obama to launch a nuclear weapon against Iran.
The Republican House majority leader is not alone in demanding unrealistic ultimatums for dealing with Iran. Senator Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has pressed for more sanctions until Iran halts its entire nuclear enrichment program, including the programs for the more benign fields of energy production, health research, etc.
The abolition of nuclear weapons and energy is desirable, not only in Iran but throughout the world. Short of that, however, hawks in both parties in Congress must realize the gains garnered this weekend.
Congress should welcome, not stubbornly dismiss, diplomatic efforts to finalize the interim accord and support the continued conversation to reach a more comprehensive agreement. The sanctions that hawks on the Hill are pushing derail such efforts and increase the prospects of war.
There is, thankfully, a growing bipartisan contingent of Congress who recognizes that more sanctions could undercut the delicate diplomatic efforts underway. Senator Carl Levin, D-Mich., chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioned early on that, “We should not at this time impose additional sanctions.”
Senator Tim Johnson, D-S.D., chair of the Banking Committee, is still weighing whether to press forward with new sanctions in his committee. Separately, as early as next week, the Senate could vote on Iran sanctions amendments during the chamber’s debate on the must-pass annual defense authorization bill.
This caution against new sanctions, coming from these more sober quarters of the Senate, echoes the warnings from a wide spectrum of former U.S. military officials against new sanctions. There is broad recognition by U.S. and Israeli security officials that the military option is not the preferred option; a diplomatic one is.
This widespread support for a negotiated solution was highlighted last week when 79 national security heavyweights signed on to a resounding endorsement of the Obama Administration’s latest diplomatic efforts.
Any member of Congress rejecting a diplomatic solution moves the United States toward another war in the Middle East. Saying no to this deal-in-the-works, furthermore, brings the world no closer toward the goal of Iran giving up its entire nuclear program. Rather, it would likely result in an unchecked Iranian enrichment program, while the United States and Iran would teeter perilously close on the brink of war.
A deal to prevent war and a nuclear-armed Iran is within reach and it would be dangerous to let it slip away. Congress can do the right thing here, for America’s security and Middle East’s stability, and take the higher diplomatic road. Pandering to harsh rhetoric and campaign contributors is no way to sustain a foreign policy agenda. It will only make America and her assets abroad less secure, not more. The time is now to curb Iran’s enrichment program as well as Congress’s obstructionism to a peaceful path forward.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Kate Gould is legislative associate for Middle East policy at FCNL.
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