Secretary of State John Kerry interrupted his travel schedule in the Middle East this past weekend to meet with Iranian and international negotiators in Geneva, where real progress on Iran’s nuclear program appeared possible. Kerry’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is shared by the United States and Israel and widely supported by the American public and by the Jewish community in particular.
President Obama has led international efforts toward that goal through a combination of tightening sanctions, serious offers of diplomacy, and the credible threat of military intervention if all else fails.
Iran did not get to the negotiating table by accident; it came seeking relief from sanctions. With its economy stagnating, its revenues from oil exports shrinking, and suffering from the inability to import basic goods and even medicines, Iranians are fed up.
In its recent presidential elections, the Iranian people chose the most moderate candidate who was allowed to run, Hassan Rouhani. During his campaign he promised greater openness, to focus on Iran’s long-term economic development, and to repair the country’s international standing. Despite the opposition of Iranian hardliners, Rouhani reportedly has the backing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini, as well as that of the majority of Iranians, to negotiate.
There was optimism on both sides that this round of negotiations would result in an interim agreement on curtailing the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for a gradual limited relief of the economic sanctions that the United States and Europe have imposed on Iran. While no such agreement was reached, this round of negotiations did significantly narrow the differences between Iran and the international community. A follow-up meeting is scheduled for Nov. 20.
There are those who use the lack of agreement in the latest round of talks to say, “We told you the Iranians can’t be trusted” and to demand that additional sanctions be imposed on Iran. This approach is actually counterproductive.
Granted, the sanctions have brought Iran to the point that they are seriously looking for a way to move in a direction that addresses America’s and, by extension, Israel’s fears. But imposing further sanctions in the midst of negotiations would strengthen the hand of Iran’s hard-liners and risk fracturing the international coalition successfully assembled to pressure Iran to come to the table in the first place. There will be plenty of time to pass more and tougher sanctions should the current round of diplomacy fail.
Some Jewish advocacy groups are pressuring the Senate to pass a resolution to impose even more stringent new sanctions on Iran. And some senators are saying they will proceed with a new sanctions bill. This, despite the fact that most American Jews (62 percent) support President Obama’s handling of Iran’s nuclear program, as shown in the 2013 American Jewish Committee’s Survey of American Jewish Opinion.
Many pundits commenting on the Iran quandary have stated that when dealing with Iran, we must always remember that the country functions with a “bazaar mentality.” Those of us who have lived in the Middle East know that it is a very foreign way of thinking to most Americans. In the bazaar or the souk, you don’t get a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ until the end of the negotiation, and the negotiating process always has a disproportionate effect on the outcome. The answers are often conditional, based on the perception of how you’re being treated by the other side. And if the negotiation is to end successfully, the final price is always one that both sides see as honorable.
The United States must continue to work for a peaceful and successful end to these negotiations. We should continue to support President Obama’s efforts and leadership on this issue. The Senate needs to hold off on imposing additional sanctions while the current sanctions are having the desired effect.