Just before Congress recessed for the holidays, 26 senators - 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans, led by Senators Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) - introduced the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013. Its purpose: to ready new sanctions that would be triggered only if Iran's rulers either fail to meet the obligations they have undertaken under a "Joint Plan of Action" or foot-drag on talks meant to lead to a "comprehensive agreement." That agreement is to offer the theocrats a simple deal: relief from increasing economic isolation and pressure in exchange for the verifiable dismantling of their nuclear-weapons program - an illegal program condemned by six U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The bill has displeased Iran's rulers and infuriated many on the American left. "Saboteur Sen. Launching War Push," ran the histrionic headline above Menendez's photo in the Huffington Post last week.
President Obama also opposes the legislation. At his final press conference of the year, he said "there's no reason to do it now" and he accused the bill's congressional sponsors of "trying to look tough on Iran" for political reasons. He has threatened a veto should the measure reach his desk. His veto could be overridden by a two-thirds majority in each house - a high but not insurmountable hurdle.
Members of Congress sitting on the fence might want to ponder a few questions over the holidays: Are you confident that Iran's rulers are negotiating in good faith? Do you think American diplomats will be helped or harmed if you give them additional leverage? Does it trouble you that Iran's rulers have yet even to acknowledge that they have a nuclear-weapons program - insisting that, despite the vast petroleum reserves they control, they are building nuclear facilities under mountains strictly for "peaceful purposes"? Are you convinced that Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are moderates? Or do you suspect that they might be trying to play American diplomats like a Guadagnini?
Consider, too, the current state of play. The Joint Plan of Action was concluded on November 24. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the think tank I head, estimates that, over the next six months, Iran will receive $20 billion or more in sanctions relief both directly from the Geneva package and through positive changes in Iranian economic activity. Last Friday at 6 p.m., a State Department spokesman finally answered a query about what concessions Iran has given in return. It turns out that, on the Iranian side, the agreement "has yet to be implemented."
In the meantime, Iran's centrifuges continue to spin, turning out 20 percent enriched uranium. Construction is ongoing at the Arak heavy-water reactor, a facility that will be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Weaponization and ballistic-missile development have not been halted - such activities are not even included in the Joint Plan of Action despite the fact that a 2012 U.N. Security Council resolution obligates Iran to "not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons." All these issues are to be addressed in a new round of negotiations expected to begin in January - though no date certain is yet on the calendar.
The challenges of negotiating with dictators and authoritarians should not be underestimated. Years of talks intended to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons ended in abject failure. More recently, the vaunted "reset" with Russia led to American concessions on such important issues as missile defense. It is not clear what Russia has given in return. Syria may be in the process of surrendering its chemical weapons but, in exchange, the Assad regime now has a green light to slaughter Syrian men, women, and children by any other means. Indeed, over the past week more than 400 people were killed in residential areas of Aleppo by regime aircraft that dropped steel barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel.
Why are bad guys better than good guys when it comes to deal-making? Part of the reason, I suspect, is that we too often assume that those across the table are, like us, seeking common ground and sincerely open to compromise. In reality, the rulers of such nations as North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Iran regard negotiations as warfare. Their goal is not "conflict resolution." It is victory - and that implies the defeat of their enemies.
These are concepts too many modern Western leaders are uncomfortable even discussing. President Obama has famously said, "I was elected to end wars, not start them." Notice that he said "end" - not "win." As George Orwell observed decades ago, "the quickest way to end a war is to lose it."
Talks with despots should never be confused with courtships. Beyond looking tough is actually being tough, making the Iranians understand what happens if they walk out the door. My colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Mark Dubowitz, estimates that the new sanctions bill, if passed and triggered by Iranian intransigence, "will cost Iran over $4.6 billion per month in lost exports of crude oil, fuel oil, and lease condensates, and billions of dollars more from the blacklisting of key Iranian strategic sectors and the loss of access to overseas foreign-exchange reserves."
One thing we know about the Tehran regime: Its highest priority is its own survival. It is willing to absorb much damage in pursuit of its hegemonic ambitions. It might accept a setback - if the alternative is worse.
Writing in Arms Control and Regional Security for the Middle East, a professional blog, Olli Heinonen, former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Orde Kittrie, another colleague at FDD, argue that "if the negotiations with Iran are to succeed in achieving U.S. national-security objectives, both the first-stage implementation agreement and any comprehensive final agreement must be legally binding, enter into force on a clearly specified date, reaffirm the authority of the U.N. Security Council, and contain far fewer gaps and ambiguities."
That would require that Iran not be permitted to "continue to buy time and space for its nuclear program by delaying and misinterpreting the Joint Plan of Action."
The legislation now being considered by Congress - imposing new penalties should such procrastination and misinterpretation persist - would begin to make that case seriously and strenuously.