Two weeks after 131 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a bipartisan letter calling for the Obama administration to advance a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear dispute with Iran, the House passed a new bill that imposes further sanctions on Iranian financial sectors and certain individuals. The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013 (H.R.850) also cuts off Iran’s already sluggish oil trade. This quandary in the Congress came amid a softer tone from the White House towards the newly elected Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, that congratulated the Iranian people and saw the inauguration of Rouhani as an opportunity for Tehran to engage with the West. Together with the hawkish tone from the congress, this approach sends a perplexing and mixed signal to the Iranian officials.
The Nuclear Iran Prevention Act is contradictory by stating that “the United States should support freedom, human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law in Iran” while at the same time restricting Iranian people from dollars and euros to import necessary medicine, medical devices, and agricultural commodities. It also limits foreign financial institutions from facilitating transactions with Iranian banks regardless of the nature of the transaction.
Right after the provocative pro-sanction act of H.R.850 was passed, 16 Representatives signed a letter to House leadership expressing concern with the timing of the bill and recommending that “the House of Representatives should not preempt a potential opportunity” to secure a deal with Iranians through another set of sanctions. This sensible recommendation was followed by 76 senators signing another letter to President Obama, pushing for more sanctions. Without allowing time to observe the course taken by Rouhani, the letter strikes a hostile tone by calling for military options, saying the U.S. must reinforce “the credibility of our option to use military force at the same time as we fully explores a diplomatic solution to our dispute with Iran.”
Getting ready to deal with a suffering economy inherited from his pugnacious predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new Iranian president commenting on the passage of the new Act said progress “should not be through the language of sanctions” but “through the language of discourse and respect.” Rouhani has called U.S.–Iranian relationship an “old wound that needs to be healed.”
Although, at first blush, Rouhani seems to be a conservative and has never called himself a reformist, it’s too soon for Congress to judge him. After all, he has nominated a technocratic cabinet to the parliament and has spoken of political moderation in relation with the West and more transparency regarding Iran’s nuclear program. If the Obama administration and Congress are trying to work out a deal on the Iranian nuclear program and mid-east relations that extends to Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, they should avoid provocative actions and steer clear of the language that Israeli officials have used since the Iranian presidential election in June 2013. The path to peace in the middle east will be found by encouraging Rouhani’s eagerness to negotiate with the U.S. and its allies.