Will US sanctions scuttle a nuclear deal with Iran?

Tyler CullisTrita ParsiTyler Cullis and Trita Parsi outline the findings and ramifications of a new report from the National Iranian American Council (NAIC) on President Obama's legal authority to roll back sanctions against Iran as part of a comprehensive nuclear deal. The president, they argue, is constrained by the law in a way that dangerously limits his ability to deliver on the key transaction of nuclear talks: sanctions relief for nuclear concessions.

By Trita Parsi and Tyler Cullis

It is clear that any final nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 will require deep and creative thinking on how to provide the US and its European partners confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, all the while respecting Iran’s nuclear rights. Understandably, lots of expert opinion has focused on forging a delicate balance between the parties and their respective interests in this regard.

Less discussed, however, is what will need to happen in the US should that balance be found. This is troubling, especially in light of the fact that the White House might not have the power at present to meet its commitments if and when a nuclear deal is agreed to.

President Barack Obama signs the Iran Sanctions Bill
July 1, 2010 - President Obama signs the 2010 Iran Sanctions Bill into law as lawmakers from both parties look on. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

As a recent NIAC report demonstrates, the President is deeply constrained in his ability to lift the robust energy and financial sanctions Congress has imposed on Iran. Under current law, the best the President can offer Iran are time-limited waivers that he promises to renew for as long as Iran keeps to its commitments under a nuclear deal and for as long as he remains in office. Whether succeeding Administrations would feel similarly bound to a nuclear deal that might well prove a political thunderbolt is unclear.

If this is supposed to inspire the confidence required for Iran to agree to strong and sustained nuclear concessions, we’d do well to reconsider. Any deal that allows Congress to litigate and re-litigate the issue every six months (as would happen if waiver were used as the primary means of sanctions relief) is not one that Iran will feel comfortable hanging its hat on.

The White House is aware of the problem. On the eve of the latest round of talks in Vienna, a senior administration official noted that the White House is “doing a considerable amount of work, including consultations with Congress . . . to understand in great detail how to unwind the sanctions.”

Presumably, US negotiators have also communicated to the Iranians what is possible at present in terms of sanctions relief. But if so, therein lies the problem. If the US is offering limited and reversible sanctions relief to Iran’s negotiators, Iran might well reciprocate with similarly limited and reversible concessions on its nuclear program. This is especially likely to be the case as Iran’s negotiators came into the talks explicitly conditioning a nuclear deal on the dual principles of proportionality and reciprocity: limits to Iran’s nuclear program would be balanced out by what the US offered in return. In other words, the US could not ask for more while giving less.

Moreover, by withholding from the President the ability to lift sanctions on a more permanent basis than available at present, we distort the logic that ostensibly informed sanctions advocates. Under this logic, Congress would impose sanctions on Iran so that if and when a nuclear deal was ever agreed to, lifting the sanctions would come with a cost to Iran. That cost would be measured out in the limits it placed on Iran’s nuclear program.

But if the President is unable to relieve the sanctions on a permanent basis, this logic is defeated. It does not matter whether Iran is willing to concede important elements of its nuclear program. The White House is simply unable to match Iran’s concessions with sanctions relief of its own. In the give-and-take of negotiations, the US – it turns out -- has too little to offer.

That is why it is critical that the White House and allies in Congress look closely at the current authorizations for the President to relieve the sanctions and consider what needs to take place if and when a nuclear deal is reached. It is entirely possible that Iran and the P5+1 reach agreement in the next several months. If so, the White House must be prepared to meet its commitments under a nuclear deal and, in so doing, ensure that Iran does the same. It would be a terrible irony if the sanctions – which its advocates contend are responsible for the seriousness of Iran’s present engagement – acted as a final bar to a secure and stable nuclear agreement with Iran.

Tyler Cullis is a Policy Associate at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Trita Parsi is the co-founder and President of NIAC.