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Kerry May Play by the Rules; Iran Won’t

In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, Secretary of State John Kerry had two objectives. One was to justify the nuclear deal he signed with Iran that gave the Islamist regime some sanctions relief and tacitly recognized their “right” to enrich uranium and continue their nuclear program in exchange for a six-month freeze on various actions that could be easily reversed and more intrusive inspections of their facilities. But his real goal was to try and head off efforts by some in Congress to toughen the sanctions already in place to make it even harder for the Iranians to sell their oil and thereby keep their government and its nuclear enterprise funded. He was met with widespread skepticism from both sides of the aisle, as Republicans and Democrats expressed worry that he had set in motion a process that will not stop the Iranians and might undermine the economic restrictions that had already been put in place. The members of the committee also were puzzled as to why passing a bill that would not go into effect until after the six-month period that is covered by the interim accord signed in Geneva would in any way inhibit the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Indeed, a number of them pointed out that having these sanctions in place and ready to be enforced if the talks failed would actually strengthen Kerry’s hand in talks with Iran.

Kerry’s answer to these well-taken points was to say that passing sanctions now would “break faith” with Iran as well as with the other members of the P5+1 group that had negotiated the deal. It would, he said with a tone that clearly illustrated his disdain for his critics, show that the U.S. “wasn’t playing by the rules.” Though he continued to insist that the deal wasn’t based on trust but rather on an interest in testing the intentions of the Iranians, he seems to think they would either be scared away from talks or use the sanctions as an excuse to break off negotiations. Given that the only reason the Iranians have been forced to the table was their worries about the impact of the existing sanctions, this makes little sense. If their goal were to lift the sanctions, why would the threat of more cause them to give up the only way of causing the West to drop the ones they are already struggling to deal with? The real answer to the question would likely undermine support for his diplomacy.

Kerry’s line dovetailed with the threats issued by the Iranian foreign minister who has already warned the U.S. that he will walk away from the process if Congress votes for more sanctions. Kerry fears the Iranians will torpedo negotiations because, contrary to his characterization of the talks, they are not acting out of weakness or fear. By getting sanctions relief of any sort without giving an inch on enrichment or dismantling a single centrifuge, let alone giving up their stockpile, they have operated as if they, not the U.S., are in the driver’s seat. By expressing the worry that the Iranians will “race” to a bomb if more sanctions are passed, Kerry is accepting this equation in which it seems as if they are doing the Americans a favor by deigning to negotiate with him. Like the president, Kerry believes it is impossible to force Iran to give up its nuclear program. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to believe the follow-up talks have much chance of helping the administration make good on its promise never to allow Iran to get a bomb.

The disconnect between the secretary and his congressional critics is clear. Kerry thinks the only point of sanctions was to create room for diplomacy, not to put Tehran’s feet to the fire. As a number of committee members noted, they did not pass sanctions merely for the sake of negotiating but to pressure Iran to give up their nuclear ambition.

Kerry’s only coherent argument was an appeal for more time. In six months, he said, we would see whether he was right that a serious process that would make the world safer had been initiated. Indeed, we shall. But given his less-than-candid briefing on the terms of the agreement in which he exaggerated the difficulties Iran would have in re-converting its uranium stockpile to dangerous levels, Congress should be prepared to be told that diplomacy was still viable next summer no matter what actually happens in the months to come. Indeed, if, as Kerry says, the Europeans abandon sanctions merely because of the possibility that the U.S. will toughen them, how can he argue that they will stick with the restrictions in the coming months once he has already begun to unravel them?

Will Kerry succeed in stifling congressional action? The jury is out on that question. The administration has a consistent record of opposing all sanctions on Iran in spite of the fact that it currently brags about the impact of those measures that were forced upon it by an aroused Congress in the past. And it hopes it can count on Majority Leader Harry Reid to protect it from embarrassment if push comes to shove.

But having discarded their existing leverage over Iran and begging Congress not to give them more, Kerry has undermined confidence in his negotiating ability, if not his credibility on the issue. For him, diplomacy has always seemed to exist as a goal for its own sake as a game with rules that the players should respect regardless of outcomes. But while he wants to play by the rules, the Iranians have proved time and again that they do not.

Performances like the one Kerry put on today did little to enhance the chances that some key Senate Democrats will back his play. As war-weary as Americans may be, a diplomatic process whose premise is based on an American refusal to increase pressure and an Iranian resolve never to give up its key nuclear objectives is one that is hard to believe in. Passing the new sanctions bill would warn the Iranians that although they may have hoodwinked Kerry, Congress will hold him and the administration accountable for failure. By talking down to Congress today and asking them to have faith in him rather than pay attention to Iran’s record, he may have made the job of his critics a little easier. 

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