Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act: yea or nay?

Graham Allison and Gary Samore gather the best arguments for and against the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, a Senate bill that has been stirring up controversy over the effect its passage would have on nuclear negotiations.


Over the weekend, the P5+1 and Iran reached an accord on implementing the terms of the interim nuclear deal and agreed on a start date of January 20. A majority in the Senate has rallied around a bill that the Obama administration warns would likely derail the negotiations if passed. The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, which currently has 59 cosponsors in the Senate, would impose strict new sanctions on Iran unless President Obama makes monthly certifications to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the interim agreement and that the nuclear negotiations are proceeding toward an acceptable outcome.

 The bill has prompted an outpouring of writing in favor and against the bill, and we have gathered some of the best recent analyses for both sides.

Best analyses supporting the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act:

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) speaks to reporters.
  • Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), a co-author of the bill, presents the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act as a “diplomatic insurance policy” in a piece in the Washington Post. Emphasizing Iran’s history of “bluff-and-bluster techniques,” Sen. Menendez argues that the threat of additional sanctions would strengthen the P5+1’s diplomatic leverage by explicitly guaranteeing quick reprisals if Iran fails to execute the interim agreement. For this reason, the Senator claims the “big winner” of prospective sanctions would be the Obama administration.
  • Clifford May, in a USA Today op-ed, riffs on Teddy Roosevelt’s famous phrase, dubbing the Menendez-Kirk bill a necessary “big stick” to complement the soft talk of American diplomats. He points to research by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, which he heads, that argues that the prospect of sanctions relief has already set Iran’s economy on the path to recovery, reducing Tehran’s incentive to make concessions. Tougher sanctions, May believes, could be the remedy that “keeps the Iranians at the table.”

 Best analyses opposing the bill:

President Obama responded to Sen. Menendez’s claim that his negotiators would be the winners if a new sanctions bill were passed with a firm rebuke. “Imposing additional sanctions now,” the president said, before threatening to veto the Menendez-Kirk bill, “will only risk derailing our efforts to resolve this issue peacefully.” A number of authors expanded on President Obama’s arguments opposing the bill. What follows are a few of the best such pieces.

  •  Writing for CQ Roll Call, Trita Parsi argues that Sen. Menendez and his fellow lawmakers are unwittingly strengthening Iranian hardliners, who are looking for opportunities to end the nuclear negotiations. Parsi writes that sanctions legislation will make  “America—not Iran—the problem.” Khamenei’s “mistrust of the West will have proven correct,” and “Rouhani will be weakened and momentum will shift back to Khamenei and the hardliners.” Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl offers a similar take in a National Interest piece titled “The Danger of New Iran Sanctions.”
  • Ed Levine draws on his extensive experience as a staffer on the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees to identify specific flaws in the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act in a piece for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. For example, the bill asks the President to certify to Congress that Iran has not been involved in terrorism against U.S. interests, with no timeframe specified. Levine notes that any attack attributed to Iranian-backed Hezbollah “might make it impossible for the President to ever make this certification… even if Iran’s nuclear activities and negotiations were completely in good faith.” Similar provisions demand presidential certification that Iran has not used ballistic missiles and require the Obama administration to work toward a comprehensive deal that completely dismantles Iran’s “enrichment and reprocessing enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities, the heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak, and any nuclear weapon components and technology.” The sum of these provisions, Levine argues, amounts to a constraint so tight that it would “bring an end to negotiations.”
  • A group of nine American foreign policy experts, including former ambassadors Ryan Crocker, Daniel Kurtzer, William Luers, and Thomas Pickering, urge Sen. Menendez in an open letter to avoid bringing the bill to a vote. They warn that passing the bill would be the beginning of a “tit-for-tat spiral” of provocative actions and counter-actions that would “undermine any possibility of curtailing Iran’s nuclear program.” If the bill’s passage resulted in Iran walking away from the negotiating table, they point out, America and its allies will face “a stark choice—military action or living with a nuclear Iran.”

Graham Allison is director of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. Gary Samore is executive director for research at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. From 2009-13, he was President Obama’s White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction.