The administration's reaction to the potential for bipartisan legislation on new sanctions against Iran has surfaced four issues, each of which deserves serious attention.
The first is the administration's concern that the Iranians will walk out if legislation is passed. But that is precisely what Iran did when the administrationitself issued new designations on existing sanctions. The administration apparently understands that walking away is a tried-and-true Iranian tactic, but that tactic can't be allowed to carry the day.
Moreover, the argument disregards the existing sanctions pressure that brought Iran to the table and would continue and increase if Iran walks out permanently. Sanctions that would go into effect if there is no deal or if there is Iranian cheating would be severe and likely send the Iranian economy into a tailspin. In short, Iran may walk out but not for very long. Iran has long argued that it doesn't want to negotiate "under pressure." That is precisely why pressure should remain in place.
Second, the administration's allies argue that we can always pass new sanctions later and that existing sanctions can still be enforced. This, however, ignores the difficulty of full enforcement during the next six months of existing sanctions, as we saw with the Treasury Department's recent designation. Arguably, as existing sanctions would require designation of firms in the P5 +1 countries (we've already gone after the small fish), enforcement of existing sanctions during the interim period becomes more controversial than the threat of new sanctions. Moreover, the threat that more sanctions will soon drop if Iran doesn't make a final deal is critical, says Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, "to change investor psychology." He says with the sanctions relief, "Market psychology is shifting from fear of U.S. sanctions to greed." In order to keep foreign investors at bay (and minimize the economic relief afforded Iran), Treasury officials will need to be able to tell companies that they are still at risk of U.S. sanctions. Dubowitz calls the sanctions " a gift to David Cohen," the administration's sanctions chief, to wield against companies otherwise inclined to pump money into the Iranian economy.
The next excuse is that the deal sets parameters for an end state that would eliminate Iran's enrichment. But that's not going to happen because Iran says it won't stop enrichment. The point of sanctions and the threat of military action is namely to force Iran to do something it does not want to do. Moreover, this reads too much into the Senate sanctions language, which talks about eliminating enrichment part of Iran's "illicit" weapons program and removing a potential Iranian breakout. American negotiators have been hinting that there is some limited enrichment they might allow and this actually suggests there is. Putting aside whether a single centrifuge should be left in Iran, the sanctions legislation can be read as saying precisely what administration officials have said. Now, if the administration is thinking it needs to give Iran more than a token amount of enrichment, that's a problem. And this brings us to the most important issue underlying the administration's panic attack over sanctions legislation.
The administration, I have long suspected, is not as concerned about the sanctions language as it is about Congress describing the contours of an acceptable final deal. On this Dubowitz agrees, saying, "I'm not sure the administration is that concerned about the sanctions bill. What is giving them heartburn is the end state." In short, the administration wants total control over an end deal, giving it unlimited flexibility to bring back any deal no matter how half-baked, without the fear Congress will deliver a vote of no confidence and/or continue and increase sanctions. The administration has made it painfully obvious it will do practically anything to avoid the need for military action (and to block Israeli action), so it is logical that the bar it will set for a deal is much lower than if the president actually took the potential for military action seriously. It might, for example, be willing to leave Iran with thousands of centrifuges and to forgo dismantling the Arak heavy water plant.