It's hard to know exactly what the growing number of senators who've signed on to a sanctions bill against Iran think they're doing.
If they want to torpedo the interim nuclear deal that the United States and five other nations struck with Iran, then they should say so. But that's not what many say. They claim they support diplomacy and are only trying to assist the Obama administration in the next round of talks by pushing the Iranians “to negotiate honestly and seriously,” to quote an op-ed by New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who has signed on to the legislation, likewise said through a spokesman that “he supports the president's diplomatic efforts, and the threat of even tougher sanctions will help keep Iran honest as negotiations move forward.”
The trouble is, the Obama administration considers the Senate bill a violation of the deal the senators profess to respect. So do the Iranians, who vow to walk away from the table should anything like it pass. And yet The Washington Post has reported that “a near filibuster-proof majority of senators [are] now willing to approve fresh legislation, according to senior Senate aides.”
The Post also noted that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has no plans for a vote. If that remains the case, perhaps the bill is a political gesture — a way for senators of both parties to adopt a tough public posture toward Iran.
We're skeptics about Iran's intentions, too, but support the next stage of talks because the interim agreement, which takes effect Jan. 20, includes constructive concessions from Iran in return for a slight easing of sanctions.
Most important, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium above 5 percent and to degrade the stock of 20 percent fuel that it holds.
Yes, those stocks can be re-enriched. And, yes, any permanent agreement must further reduce the risk of an Iranian nuclear “breakout,” whereby it produces enough weapons-grade uranium for bombs. That means the agreement, to be successful, will have to address Iran's nuclear infrastructure, too.
It's a tall order. But if Iran abides by the interim agreement, it will be further than it is today from breakout. And if it doesn't comply, the U.S. will know at once and can respond appropriately.