Sanctions Hawks Losing the Plot

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Pool

new poll of registered voters conducted by Americans United for Change and released last week is the latest to show majority support for the recent agreement in Geneva between the P5+1—the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—and Iran. Among those with an opinion (41 percent said they had none, or hadn’t heard enough about the deal to form an opinion), 57 percent supported the agreement with 37 percent opposed.

But the poll also noted that, after hearing a description of the deal—in which Iran will halt its nuclear work and submit to increased inspections in exchange for modest sanctions relief—support went up to 63 percent. As the Washington Examiner pointed out, even those identifying as “strongly pro-Israel” favored the deal by 48 percent to 40 percent. 

It’s not the first poll that has found such a result. Last week, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found Americans supporting the just-brokered deal by a two to one margin. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released on November 20, just days before the deal was struck, found that 64 percent would support lifting “some of their economic sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear program”—the essential parameters of the Geneva agreement. A CNN poll released a day later found 56 percent support for such a similar deal.

A recent National Journal survey of more than 100 national-security experts asked, “Is the recent agreement between world powers and Iran to limit its nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief a good deal?” 75 percent answered yes.

In the face of this overwhelming consensus of public and elite opinion, however, Congress still seems intent on moving forward with yet another round of sanctions, despite Iran already suffering under the most comprehensive and intense sanctions regime of any country in history, which have severely curtailed Iran’s oil sales and access to global financial institutions, which has in turn resulted in inflation as high as 40 percent. Supporters of new sanctions claim they would give the Obama administration “increased leverage” in talks, despite the Obama administration’s insistence that such a move could scuttle the possibility of a deal that could both prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and create the opportunity for a broader easing of tensions between the United States and the Islamic Republic.

It’s worth noting here that new U.S. sanctions would contravene the terms of the Geneva agreement, which stipulates that no new sanctions will be passed during the six-month interim period in which the broader comprehensive deal is negotiated. They would put the United States at odds both with its P5+1 partners and the broader international community, whose cooperation has been essential to the sanctions’ effectiveness, and who have made clear that further reductions to Iran’s oil sales would be difficult for them to manage. It could also dramatically undermine Iranian confidence that the Obama administration can follow through on the eventual comprehensive deal that addresses all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for much broader sanctions relief. After all, if the president can't even hold his own government to this modest first-phase agreement, how can he be expected to sell a larger, probably more controversial one?

Yet for some in Congress, these risks are worth the possibility, however remote, that even more pressure on Iran—at precisely the moment that Iran is doing the thing that pressure was supposed to make them do, compromise—could produce a better result. “From my perspective, it strengthens the administration’s hand” and positions the United States “for the possibility that [a permanent] agreement cannot ultimately be struck,” New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez told The Washington Post. “It would make clear to the Iranians if they don’t strike a deal, this is what’s coming.

A few senators have stood up against the sanctions push. California’s Diane Feinstein, a Democrat, harshly criticized the new sanctions move earlier in November. “If you want a war, that is the thing to do,” Feinstein said. “I don’t want a war. The American people don’t want a war. We’ve had years in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is an opportunity to move in a different path, and we ought to try it.” In response to the Geneva deal, Feinstein released a statement, “By any standard, this agreement is a giant step forward and should not be undermined by additional sanctions at this time.”  Yet leading Democratic senators like Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York have joined with hawkish Republican colleagues like Illinois’ Mark Kirk and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham to threaten just such a move.

Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy explained to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Monday why he thought that new sanctions could hurt the process. “What we would risk doing here in implementing a new round of sanctions is not just screwing up the negotiation, but sending a message to the Iranian people —who are frankly way more pro-American than people might think—that we aren’t really serious about ultimately doing the deal they want,” Murphy told Hayes. “The hard-liners are isolated right now in Iran, and we are, frankly, going to empower them if we show up with the table in the middle of these short-term negotiations with a new round of sanctions that even though they may take place in the future.”

One Democratic Senate aide was less reserved in his criticism. “Why do we need to debate a sanctions bill at this time? What is the urgency? It’s in the land of insanity.” The only possible motivation for the new sanctions right now, the aide continued, “ is to try to gum up this [negotiations] process. We should give this once-in-a-lifetime chance at least a little time to work before killing it in the cradle.”

This isn’t the first time a president has had to deal with criticism from within his own party over deals with longtime adversaries. Ronald Reagan had to contend with vicious attacks from Cold War conservatives who couldn’t stomach his negotiating nuclear arms reductions with Soviet premier Mikhael Gorbachev. But I’m unaware of any example of the members of the president’s own party in Congress taking such steps as are being threatened now, steps that could undermine an era-defining agreement between the U.S. and Iran. 

Iran isn’t the only issue where Congress is out of step with the American people, says Stephen Miles, the coalition coordinator for Win Without War, a liberal anti-war organization, who noted that Iran seems to be one of several key issues where Congress runs amuck. “Like reducing gun violence, immigration reform, and a host of other issues, when it comes to Iran, Congress is on the wrong side of American public opinion,” Miles said. Americans have made clear that they’re done with wars in the Middle East, he continued, “If Congress wants to improve its outrageously low approval ratings, they might want to start listening to their voter's wishes.”

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