Skip to main content
matthew duss

Last Wednesday's typically lopsided vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in favor of yet another round of sanctions against Iran should not obscure the fact that, in the wake of the recent election of new Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, a shift is taking place in the dynamics of the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.

While Mr. Rowhani can be described as a "moderate" only in the sense that he was the most moderate choice available after more reformist candidates had been rejected by Iran's Guardian Council, the fact that Iranian voters chose, for the second time in a row, the candidate who ran on a platform of conciliation with the international community – and, even more importantly, was allowed to win by Iran's Supreme Leader, who many believed tipped the scales in favor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 – sent a message that Iran may now look more favorably on ending the tensions over its nuclear program.

This message was reinforced by Mr. Rowhani's nomination of Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's well-regarded former ambassador to the United Nations, a fluent English-speaker and supporter of U.S.-Iran rapprochement, as foreign minister .

It's a message that appears to have been received in Washington, at least by some. In mid-July, a bipartisan group of former government officials, military officers, diplomats, and national security experts signed a letter calling on President Barack Obama to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts toward Iran.

Days later, 131 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter with a similar message. "We believe it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rowhani's election represents a real opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement," the letter stated. "In order to test this proposition, it will be prudent for the United States to utilize all diplomatic tools to reinvigorate ongoing nuclear talks."

A similar letter is also making its way through the U.S. Senate, supported by Senator Diane Feinstein.

The Obama administration has indicated that it does not favor new sanctions at this time, preferring to take some time to explore whether a Rowhani administration would be able to deliver on promises of dealing more squarely with the international community. But, given Iran's record of support for terrorism and regular hostile statements against Israel, passing aggressive measures against Iran remain one of the easiest political lifts in Washington. The powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) had made very clear on the Hill that, just as with past anti-Iran measures, it considered these new sanctions a priority.

The rationale behind the new sanctions, according to its proponents, is that Mr. Rowhani's so-called moderation is simply a smokescreen, and that sanctions must continue to be piled on until Iran makes genuine concessions on its nuclear program, and that any delay in new sanctions would send a message of weakness. (As is so often the case with hardliners in opposing countries, both U.S. and Iranian hawks seem to share a mutually-reinforcing worldview in which compromise equals appeasement, pragmatism equals weakness, and threats and bluster equal strength.)

Some have suggested, somewhat counter-intuitively, that increased pressure could even strengthen Mr. Rowhani's hand in internal regime debates. "Rowhani's main theme in his campaign was that I am a better diplomat so I can negotiate better and lift the sanctions," Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Foreign Policy magazine. "I think continuation of pressure on Iran will help Rowhani to remain relevant."

On the other hand, the past shows that both the U.S. and Iran have wasted opportunities for rapprochement when they felt that they had gained the upper hand, as many in Congress feel the U.S. has now, and that Iran has tended to respond to aggressive gestures from the United States by digging in rather than capitulating.

In a recent New York Review of Books piece, former U.S. ambassadors Thomas Pickering and William Luers and MIT researcher Jim Walsh wrote that aggressive measures could dramatically undercut U.S. diplomacy. "[P]iling on of more coercive sanctions and ultimatums, particularly when there are new hopes for the diplomatic process to get underway, will undermine or even preclude the possibility of negotiating a nuclear deal," the authors warned.

Debating the bill on the House floor on Wednesday, Virginia Congressman Jim Moran deplored the idea of hitting Iran with new sanctions just days before Mr. Rowhani took office on Sunday. "This is destructive because it hurts the Iranian people and empowers the hardliners," Mr. Moran said. "I think we should at least hold off and let the new president be inaugurated, and let's see what we can do."

Despite the cautious optimism around what a Rowhani administration might mean for Iran-U.S. relations, the fact is that Iranian policy remains under the control of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is known to be deeply suspicious of U.S. motives, and disinclined to make any gestures than could be interpreted in the West as weakness, views which the new Congressional sanctions can only have affirmed. Taking the presidential oath of office Sunday, Mr. Rowhani declared that Iran "cannot be made to surrender through sanctions." We'll soon find out whether the international effort to address the Iranian nuclear program is helped or hindered by the Congress once again picking up the sanctions stick.

Matthew Duss is National Security Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress in Washington