Sanctions work. They prompted Iran to return to negotiations with the United States, Russia, Germany, France, China, and Britain — the P5+1 — that led to the potentially promising deal announced in Geneva on Nov. 23. But with details of the agreement not yet final, it is surely prudent to prepare additional measures to strengthen existing sanctions, in case Tehran is not really committed to negotiating a permanent accord to end its nuclear-weapons program.
That’s the essence of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 introduced by New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez along with Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Charles Schumer (D-NY). The bill does not call for an immediate imposition of new sanctions; rather, preparing for the possibility that current talks with Iran may not succeed, it provides for powerful measures that can be applied to impede the regime’s progress toward nuclear weapons capability. It already has nearly 50 cosponsors, including New Jersey’s Sen. Cory Booker, and could reach a veto-proof majority of 67 soon after Congress returns next week.
For this initiative Menendez, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, should be applauded. Instead, he has been singled out for attack by those who are convinced that Iran has substantially changed its approach to discussing its nuclear program with the United States and other world powers. He has been accused of undermining the talks with Iran, and even risking war. But senators who have already passed sanctions legislation against Iran’s nuclear ambition in recent years have good reasons to remain suspicious about the Iranian leadership’s true intentions.
The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act is exactly what is needed now to keep up the pressure on Iran. Why? Numerous questions have arisen about the details of the Geneva agreement since it was announced, and at least one P5+1 country, France, has publicly expressed serious doubts about the Iranian commitment to reach a final deal.
That skepticism is shared by many Americans. A national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center and USA Today in December found that only 32 percent approve of the Geneva deal, while 43 percent disapprove (24 percent have no opinion).
Meanwhile, the clock on the six-month interim accord has not even begun ticking. Further technical talks are needed to clarify details and obligations. Iran is warning that the proposed Senate action — even discussion of it — could derail the process, which raises the question of who really is committed to completing the interim accord and implementing it in good faith. If Iran is serious about a deal, then this legislation will have zero impact, so why is Iran threatening to bolt?
We have confronted this morass many times before in recent years, as the international community has sought to gain Iran’s cooperation and together resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully. Tehran repeatedly offers to negotiate in good faith, but continues to pursue unabated its nuclear ambitions, a large-scale program with an inherent military component. International Atomic Energy Agency director general Yukiya Amano has warned several times that Iran is not coming clean on its nuclear program and that its military dimension cannot be discounted. Indeed, only last week, barely a month after the apparent diplomatic achievement in Geneva was announced to great celebration, Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, declared that another 1,000 centrifuges were ready for activation.
For years Iran has practiced deceit and defiance toward the UN, the IAEA, and nations around the world, including, centrally, the P5+1. The supply of centrifuges, well-hidden in Fordow, Natanz, and other nuclear facilities, has grown exponentially over the past decade, and the number of new centrifuges that enrich uranium faster than older models is increasing.
The challenge of getting Iran to end, once and for all, its quest for nuclear-weapons capability may appear daunting. But it must be done, since a nuclear-armed Iran is the most dangerous threat to the Middle East region and to global security today.
The bipartisan Senate bill will help keep all parties to the talks focused on the end game. The bill holds in reserve new sanctions that could be activated if Iran does not fulfill its obligations under the interim deal, including setting the terms for a permanent agreement, or if Iran again walks away from the entire process. That should give additional incentive to progress toward a final deal that ensures that Iran’s actions are concrete and verifiable.
The burden should remain where it rightly belongs, on Iran’s leadership. The Senate should approve the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act as one more meaningful action underscoring the seriousness of America’s determination and the consequences of an Iranian failure to act in good faith.