Gastbeitrag von Jordan Schneider
The 112th Congress, considered one of the most polarized in history, found at least one major policy issue that could secure universal bipartisan agreement. Last November the Senate voted 100-0 to dramatically tighten sanctions on Iran. The White House had hoped for less drastic action that would have allowed for more flexibility on enforcement, but Congress would not be deterred. Over the past year, due to congressional action the US has targeted entities that deal with Iran’s Central Bank and even threatened allies should they not significantly pare down their Iranian oil imports. The Hill’s hard line has had its intended effect: unforgiving legislation, paired with skillful diplomacy, has wreaked havoc on Iran’s economy, dramatically increasing inflation and shaving whole percentage points off GDP growth.
As talks with Iran resume in 2013, the United States finds itself in a promising negotiating position. Sanctions are most likely to change state behavior when first implemented, before society adjusts to lower living conditions and government gains a larger share of the remaining economic activity through control of illicit trade. In order for talks to be successful, the US must be able to quickly offer incentives for significant changes in behavior that allow Iran’s leadership to back down from its nuclear program while saving face.
Yet American negotiators may be unable to offer much. In building tough international sanctions, the US has caught itself in a sanctions trap. Congressionally enacted sanctions have opened a window for negotiation by giving the US extra leverage, but the very environment that gave rise to the sanctions will make it extraordinarily difficult to roll them back. Without Congress granting the President the ability to offer carrots in a negotiation, a diplomatic effort will not succeed. America will then be left with the unappetizing options of ordering a military strike or learning to live with an Iranian bomb.
Members of Congress have little individual incentive to vote to provide the President more leeway on sanctions enforcement. No Congressperson would want to give their opponent an opening to run attack ads featuring Ahmadinejad thanking them for making his life easier. Furthermore, the praise for success of any shift in US policy would boost the President’s, not any individual Congressperson’s, stature.
In order for the President to be able to deescalate the current tension with Iran by pairing favorable actions with appropriate loosening of sanctions, the current debate has to shift. Both respected former national security officials and the public at large must shift the terms of the domestic Iran debate to allow the Congress to alter legislation.
The Senate’s ratification battle over the New START treaty in 2010 may act as a playbook for the policy mandarins. Senior experts from both sides of the aisle made it abundantly clear that ratification of the treaty was correct policy. An op-ed co-written by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker III, Lawrence Eagleburger and Colin Powell provided cover for Senators to tell their constituencies that they were acting in the interests of the American people. These old hands were proactive in shoring up support: when a wavering Susan Collins noted that George H.W. Bush’s support for the treaty would help her make up her mind, he issued a one sentence statement to that effect. Many of the same former government officials would agree that flexibility in the sanctions regime provides the best possibility to both halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program and stave off war.
The American public could also play a substantial role in creating the domestic political acceptance of a diplomatic solution. Letter writing campaigns and constituents’ visits that stress how voters would prefer to avoid another war should a viable diplomatic solution emerge. Hearing from a war-weary public may convince hawkish politicians to give the President more negotiating latitude.
Congress’ hard line has successfully created bargaining chips for American negotiators. Yet the danger missing an opportunity to shift course is real, as Congress has a recent history of scuttling potential openings with Iran. On March 5th, 1995, American oil company Conoco signed a deal to develop two oil and gas fields in Iran. Though at the time it was not illegal for American companies to win Iranian concessions, none had done so since Iranian students took Americans hostage in 1979. Months after the deal was announced, then President Rafsanjani told Peter Jennings that his country decided to go with Conoco “to send a message to the United States,” even though he had to overcome “a lot of difficulty” in his government to offer the Americans the deal.
Yet as soon as Congress got wind of the contract, any chance for repairing relations fell apart. The political environment did not allow for an interpretation of Iran’s concession as a positive step. The “deeply distressed” Chair of the Senate Banking Committee, Alfonse D’Amato, called for hearings to tighten sanctions. In order to head off the rising tide of criticism, President Clinton decided to kill the deal before Congress could do it for him. A ten-day gale of congressional politics had destroyed an opportunity to rethink America’s future relationship with Iran.
The first months of 2013 provide a uniquely promising opportunity for the US and Iran to head off further conflict before Iran develops a nuclear missile. Congress’ hardball and the Executive’s skillful diplomacy have squeezed the Iranian economy tremendously. But dire rhetoric and the toxic atmosphere in Congress will make it more difficult for President Obama to shift policy should Iran make a legitimate gesture towards reconciliation, as it did in 1995. If the Administration, senior former government officials, and the public do not begin to lay the groundwork for easing sanctions at home, Congress will quickly extinguish any hope for an understanding.
 Cordesman, Anthony, Bradley Bosserman, Sam Khazai, and Bryan Gold. “U.S. Iranian Strategic Competition: Sanctions, Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change.” CSIS. October 16, 2012. http://csis.org/files/publication/120124_Iran_Sanctions.pdf.
 Kissinger, Henry, George Shultz, James Baker, III, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Colin Powell. “The Republican Case for Ratifying New START.” Washington Post. December 02, 2010.
 O’Brien, Michael. “George H.W. Bush Urges Senate to Ratify New START.” The Hill. December 08, 2010.
 Ernest H. Preeg, Feeling Good or Doing Good with Sanctions: Unilateral Economic Sanctions and the U.S. National Interest (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1999), pg. 85.
Jordan Schneider is a senior at Yale University and former White House intern. He volunteered with the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, blogging for the official Convention website.
(Photo Illustration: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted from: jamesomalley, erjkprunczyk, mohammadali)