WASHINGTON — Congratulations, Congress. Your Iran strategy is working. Now what?
The diplomatic thaw between Iran and the West is advancing, and faster than most of us had imagined. This is the result of years of painstaking efforts by the Obama administration and lawmakers to pressure the Islamic Republic into deciding whether it’s in Iran’s interest to pursue diplomacy or to continue suffering under crushing economic sanctions and international isolation.
Now that Iran has made a clear decision to engage seriously in diplomatic negotiations with the West over its nuclear program, its intentions should be tested. Members of Congress should be open to seizing this opportunity by making strategic decisions on sanctions policy.
The economic sanctions against Iran that are in place have damaged the Iranian economy. A credible military threat — with more than 40,000 American troops in the Persian Gulf — stands on alert. International inspectors are closely monitoring Iran’s every nuclear move. Iran has not yet made a decision to build a bomb, does not have enough medium-enriched
uranium to convert to weapons grade material for one bomb and has neither a workable nuclear warhead nor a means to deliver it at long ranges. If Iran were to make a dash for a bomb, the U.S. intelligence community estimates that it would take roughly one to two years to do so.
Congress, with its power to authorize sanctions relief, plays a crucial role in deciding whether a deal will be achieved. This gives Congress the opportunity to be a partner in what could potentially be a stunning success in advancing our country’s security interests without firing a shot.
Consider the alternative: If the administration negotiates a deal that Congress blocks, then Congress becomes a spoiler and Iran will most likely continue to accelerate its nuclear program. Then lawmakers would be left with a stark choice: either acquiesce to an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program and a potential Iranian bomb or endorse the use of force to attempt to stop it. Most military experts rate the odds of a successful bombing campaign low and worry that failed strikes would push Iran to get the bomb outright.
Iran and the United States need a political solution to this conflict. Now is the time to test the Iranians at the negotiating table, not push them away.
Congress is also being tested, but the conventional wisdom holds that lawmakers won’t show the flexibility required to make a deal. Such thinking misses the political volatility just beneath the surface: Americans simply don’t support another war in the Middle East, as the congressional debate over Syria made crystal clear. Would they back much riskier military action in Iran?
Fortunately for Congress, President Barack Obama was agile enough to seize the diplomatic route and begin to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. These results are advancing U.S. security interests. And members of Congress breathed a collective sigh of relief as well as they didn’t have to either vote to undercut the commander in chief on a security issue or stick a finger in the eye of their constituents.
The same can happen on Iran. By pursuing a deal, Obama can provide Congress with an escape hatch, where it won’t have to end up supporting unpopular military action or have to explain to its constituents why it failed to block an Iranian bomb. A verifiable deal with Iran that would prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon would require sanctions relief from Congress. But that’s an opportunity to claim victory, not a burden. And it would make Congress a partner with the president on a core security issue. Congress could then say, with legitimacy, that its tough sanctions on Iran worked — and did so without starting another unpopular American war in the Middle East.
Isn’t it time Congress had a win, for once?
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at the Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund. This column first appeared in the online political news journal Politico.)