Peace Action West News

“More Cowbell Diplomacy?”: Congress’ Obsession With Sanctions Endangers Nuclear Talks

This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post. 

After weeks of rumors, Iran sanctions legislation has materialized in Congress. The philosophy behind the bill is reminiscent of a certain iconic Saturday Night Live sketch.

As you may remember, in the sketch a stern Christopher Walken plays the music producer that eggs on Will Ferrell as the over-exuberant cowbell player. In the studio, Walken declares “I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is … More Cowbell!”. In take after take, the cowbell grows louder and louder. The band members are scratching their heads.

For Congressional Iran hawks the only prescription for fevered relations with Iran is “More Sanctions”. As the clang of “more sanctions” emanates from D.C. and is heard in capitols from London to Berlin, our allies are scratching their heads.

U.S. diplomats have spent long hours in negotiations that are as complex technically as they are politically. They are in a far better position than electeds on Capitol Hill to know whether Congressional action weakens their hand.

Comments from some Senators have displayed a lack of knowledge about how negotiations have already made the world safer. Iran has stopped enriching uranium to the more problematic 20% level, capped overall uranium enrichment, and took steps to neutralize its stocks of 20% enriched uranium.

As importantly, U.S. negotiators got Iran to agree to intrusive inspections – in some cases daily inspections – at nuclear facilities. If Iran wanted to use their programs to build a weapon — a decision that the intelligence community says they have not yet made – it’s stringent inspections, verification, and intelligence that can to prevent that. Congress has crucial role to play in oversight and compliance with any deal and they need turn their focus to that role.

Despite progress, ten hawkish Democratic Senators broke with the President and pledged support for a triggered sanctions bill if there’s no framework deal by March. That’s a slap in the face of U.S. allies after British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the E.U. all spoke against Congressional meddling.

Our allies know that Iranians will be unlikely to make compromises with a negotiating party from a house divided. Why should Iranian pragmatists like President Rouhani drain political capital by making controversial concessions when it looks like Congress could undermine the administration’s promises?

The credo of more-cowbell diplomacy is this: Since sanctions brought Iran to the table more sanctions will result in a stronger deal. It’s the kind of logic that makes sense if you don’t think about it too deeply. Simply upping pressure will not cause a proud nation of 77 million people to knuckle under. Endless sanctions didn’t bring Cuba democracy or eject Saddam Hussein from power.

These Senators are half-right. Years of sanctions against Iran play a role in Iran’s motivation. But during the 2005 to 2013 period of ratcheting up sanctions Iran’s nuclear technology program sped up. Overreliance on sanctions is as responsible for Iran’s nuclear advances as it is for “bringing Iran to the table.”

If a return to a sanctions-first derails negotiations gone will be the daily inspections and rollbacks in enrichment and other nuclear technologies. Iran would then be likely to retaliate by ramping up their programs.

Both of the main Congressional interventions into negotiations are dangerous. The sanctions bill by Senators Kirk and Menendez could cause Iran to walk away from the table. If all the parties stay at the table and finish a deal, the “up-or-down vote” approach championed by Senator Bob Corker could amount to a hyper-politicized veto of a deal. Congress would be vetoing almost the entire international community. Then what? Senator Elizabeth Warren was right when she said this week, “undermining negotiations risks escalation and the possibility of war”.

A solution to the nuclear issue could address a major piece of the Middle East puzzle. As with Nixon’s opening to China, détente around the nuclear issue wouldn’t solve all tensions with Iran. But as China and Russia’s constructive role in current Iran diplomacy proves, smart diplomacy can reap dividends on issues of converging interest — even in the tensest relationships. In just one example, Iran could play a role in addressing the conflict engulfing Syria.

Congress shouldn’t let sanctions monomania blind them to a historic opportunity in the toughest of neighborhoods. If Iran hawks don’t hold their fire and let U.S. negotiators do their jobs, the only thing drowning out the cowbell will be the all-too-familiar drums of war.

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