Without Stronger Sanctions, Iran Will Go Nuclear
As the new, ‘moderate!’ president calls for talks, the centrifuges spin. Should Congress push ahead with new sanctions that could bring the Iranian economy to near-ruin in order to stop the country’s nuclear program? Right now in Washington, many of our colleagues are answering no to that question.
They argue that the tough sanctions enacted by Congress over the past several years have already helped bring about a change of leadership in Iran—replacing a hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with Hasan Rouhani in June’s election. They argue that Mr. Rouhani is a moderate who is eager to enter genuine negotiations with the West about the country’s nuclear program. Given this shift, they say, now is the time for the United States to offer Iran an olive branch. The way to show our good faith is to avoid imposing tougher economic sanctions.
We disagree. While we respect policy makers who hold such views and know they share our goal of a nuclear-free Iran, we don’t believe that easing up on the pressure is the way to get there. On the contrary, we are convinced that taking immediate steps to increase the pain of sanctions is the only way to persuade the Iranian leadership to change course.
The Islamic Republic, one of the most brutal regimes in the world, stands at the threshold of a nuclear-weapons capability. The thought of dictators who disregard the value of human life at home and pledge genocide abroad having a nuclear weapon should frighten every American.
To be clear: Iran did not hold a free and fair election earlier this summer. The Iranian people were forced to choose between a select group of regime insiders who had been carefully vetted and hand-picked by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. More than 600 would-be candidates were disqualified. Reformists were kept under house arrest. The Internet was tightly controlled in the weeks leading up to the vote.
In the end, Mr. Rouhani won. Though the word “moderate” often precedes his name in news stories, Iran’s new president is no reformer. For more than two decades, he served as the supreme leader’s personal representative to Iran’s national security council. The council oversees a range of illicit activities—from cracking down on student protestors at home to supporting terrorist groups, like Hezbollah, abroad. During a 2004 speech Mr. Rouhani boasted about how his rope-a-dope negotiating strategy with the West enabled Iran to stall while advancing its nuclear program.
As President Rouhani calls for “serious” talks with the West, Iran’s centrifuges spin, its test missiles launch, its terrorist proxies plot, and its human-rights abuses escalate. The Pentagon reports that Iran could flight test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. by 2015. Just last month, the nonpartisan Institute for Science and International Security, using data provided by United Nations inspectors, estimated that Iran would achieve nuclear critical capability—the technical know-how to produce sufficient weapon-grade uranium for a nuclear explosive without being detected—by the middle of 2014.
We believe the U.S. must exhaust all nonmilitary options to prevent Iran from achieving critical capability. Our most effective tool for avoiding a military strike is enacting harsher sanctions.
In 2011, Congress implemented sanctions targeting Iran’s central bank and oil exports. A year later, the U.S. blacklisted Iran’s shipping, shipbuilding and energy sectors. The result? Since December 2011, Iran’s currency lost more than two-thirds of its value while the regime’s oil revenues were cut in half. So sanctions are working. But loopholes remain, and the pressure is nowhere near maximum levels.
Iran continues to access billions in foreign-exchange reserves held in banks around the world. It continues to export more than a million barrels of oil per day to China, India, South Korea and Japan—by far, the regime’s single greatest remaining source of revenue. And it continues to reap immense profits from mining, construction and engineering.
American resolve is critical, especially in the next few months. By bringing the regime to the verge of economic collapse, the U.S. can convert that leverage into a diplomatic solution, forcing Iran to comply with all international obligations, including suspending all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities.
We can go a long way toward achieving that goal by taking the rest of Iran’s oil exports off the market, cutting off access to its overseas reserves, and blacklisting strategic sectors of the Iranian economy. The House voted 400 to 20 last month to approve such measures. It’s time for the Senate to act.
By strengthening sanctions, we are not calling for an end to diplomacy. But after many years of fruitless negotiations, it is clear that talks will only succeed if the regime feels pressure to change course—and not as a result of misplaced optimism over a new face for the same regime that has not wavered in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Mr. Kirk is a Republican senator from Illinois. Mr. Engel, a Democratic congressman from New York, is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
MARK KIRK AND ELIOT ENGEL
August 12, 2013
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