Congress' Iran Policy: Short Sighted and Irrational


Clear thought, rational thinking, and innovative ideas are desperately needed in the 113th Congress. Unfortunately, a large number of members of the House of Representatives have let short-term priorities and easy political points cloud their judgment. This has made for some poor and unfortunate votes that, for some partial short-term gains, will have long-term repercussions for the United States and our allies abroad. Examples of this include the failure to pass a budget for four years, the failure to solve the sequester, the failure to solve the debt ceiling, and most recently, the votes to place more stringent sanctions than ever on Iran.

On July 31, Congress finally agreed on something. In a 400-to-20 landslide vote, the House voted in favor of H.R. 850, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013. This piece of legislation was one of the cornerstones of AIPAC’s 2013 policy agenda. It was described to the Congress as a one-size-fits-all policy to prevent Iranian nuclear weapons capability. And with AIPAC’s powerful and robust lobbying campaign in Congress, it was able to garner 378 cosponsors before the bill even went to the House floor.

Even though this bill would seem to be non-controversial due to the overwhelming support it received in the House, it included some very troubling language and raised many red flags from senior military officials and some of the most prominent NGOs. One concern in particular was the legislation’s requirement that the Secretary of State designate the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). This is distinct from Iran's existing U.S. designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. If the bill becomes law, it would be the first time the U.S. has designated an element of a sovereign government as an FTO. Similar past efforts to do so have raised concerns that such a designation would effectively constitute an authorization of the use of military force against Iran.

Additionally, in the wake of the election of a new, more moderate Iranian president, this piece of legislation does not put the U.S. in the right direction. The new president, Dr. Hassan Rouhani, has begun to speak of reducing tensions between the U.S. and Iran. More importantly, Iran has voiced interest in direct talks with the U.S. on its nuclear program. The prospect of addressing this problem through diplomatic channels has been cause for guarded optimism in U.S. policy circles.

At a recent hearing on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry said, "I think this is a moment for us to be a little patient." Furthermore, in tandem with Secretary Kerry’s request to the Foreign Relations Committee, 131 House members (80 of whom still voted for H.R. 850) sent a letter to President Obama pushing for diplomacy and urging restraint: “We believe it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani's election represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement on Iran's nuclear program that ensures the country does not acquire a nuclear weapon. In order to test this proposition, it will be prudent for the United States to utilize all diplomatic tools to reinvigorate ongoing nuclear talks."

What Secretary Kerry and a significant number of U.S. House members were claiming is something that many military leaders have known for a long time: Sanctions don't work as well as we think. When Marine General James Mattis testified in March before the Senate Armed Services Committee he stated, “Severe sanctions against Iran are not working.” Additionally, the nonprofit Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation released a report that directly questioned the U.S. strategy of tougher economic sanctions used to enforce compliance in regards to Iran’s nuclear capability.

It would seem that these reports and statements given by experts in their field would have helped to support the logic of patience and control. However, Congress' recent decision to overwhelmingly pass new and more stringent sanctions on Iran reveals an arrogance and short-sighted approach to new developments in the region. It also puts the U.S. farther away from solving the issue of a nuclear Iran peacefully and brings the U.S. that much closer to military confrontation. Finally, it displays a lack of trust and support for the men and women who serve in the U.S. State Department at home and abroad, and takes away important leverage for future negotiations.