Over the course of the past three decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has pursued a covert program aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran’s activities have been in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and, in recent years, in violation of numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions.
In the past 10 years, the international community has increasingly taken more seriously the threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to global security and regional stability. Nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranian regime would undoubtedly bolster Iran’s aggressive and destructive foreign policy, threaten American security and that of its regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, and potentially lead to a nuclear arms race across an already-unstable Middle East.
U.S. policy toward Iran, one that is championed by President Obama and enjoys strong bipartisan consensus in Congress, has been to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear-weapons program by using all available tools, including financial sanctions and the threat of military force. Indeed, President Obama has repeatedly said that while it is in everyone’s interest to resolve the issue through diplomacy, “all options are on the table” to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.
The notion of “all options” has been an essential element of U.S. policy as it ratcheted up sanctions. The credibility of possible military action serves as an additional lever to create space for diplomatic engagement and enhances the prospects for a successful outcome. Far from being what some have called “warmongering,” it actually reduces the likelihood that military force will be needed and that diplomacy will carry the day. That is why the “warmongering” claim is so misguided and, even dangerous.
In November, the United States, together with an international coalition of major world powers known as the P5+1, announced that they had reached an interim six-month-long agreement with Iran, placing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for providing Iran with moderate sanctions relief. The agreement, which went into effect Jan. 20, includes the unfreezing of $4.2 billion in restricted Iranian assets, allowing small amounts of Iranian oil sales and the suspension of sanctions against importing and exporting gold by Iran.
Sanctions against companies and financial institutions conducting business in Iran effectively crippled the Iranian economy, and caused a major devaluation of the Iranian currency, the rial. The tough U.S.-led international sanctions were a vital element in putting pressure on Iran to sign the interim agreement with the P5+1 and to pursue negotiations to reach a final agreement. Without this sustained international pressure, it is unlikely the regime would have agreed to come to the negotiating table.
That is why, in December, the Anti-Defamation League welcomed introduction in the Senate of the bipartisan Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, which calls for the strengthening of existing sanctions and puts forward future sanctions that could be triggered if Iran violates its agreement with the P5+1 or a final agreement is not reached.
Whether this bill ultimately becomes law, the fact that it was co-sponsored by a bipartisan majority of the Senate sends Iran an important message about the severe repercussions of a failure to abide by its commitment to roll back, or conclude an agreement providing for a verifiable end to, its nuclear-weapons program.
As the negotiations with Iran proceed during the coming months, the United States must continue its efforts to ensure that the international community implements and enforces existing sanctions against Iran.
This includes targeting industries of strategic importance to the Iranian regime, including oil and gas, military equipment or technologies and dual-use equipment or technologies, and sustaining its clear and direct warning to companies that now is not the time to do business with Iran by punishing violators.
It is vital that President Obama, backed by strong bipartisan support in Congress, reinforce the message that this country is resolute in its commitment to preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear-weapons capability. Iran’s leaders must be made to understand that violating their agreement with the P5+1 will have severe consequences, including the imposition and implementation of additional enhanced sanctions.
While Iran has given the world little reason to believe it is serious about abandoning its nuclear-weapons ambitions, the United States can certainly improve the chances Iran might do so if the pressure that brought Iran to the table is sustained and, if necessary, increased.