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Senators are wrong on tougher Iran sanctions

Greg Thielmann is a senior fellow of the Arms Control Association and a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who later served on the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

Greg Thielmann

is a senior fellow of the Arms Control Association and a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who later served on the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

In nuclear negotiations, as in medicine, the first principle is: "Do no harm." Yet a bill sponsored by about 60 senators, including Robert Menendez and Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bob Casey and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, threatens to pull the plug on the patient just as the Iran nuclear negotiations are entering their most delicate phase.

Iran and its six negotiating partners (the P5+1) are about to begin implementing the Joint Plan of Action agreed to Nov. 24. This six-month-long, first-phase deal includes a number of specific measures that will verifiably halt and, in some areas, roll back advances in Iran's capabilities of greatest proliferation concern and reduce its potential to produce material for nuclear weapons. The agreement will also significantly enhance the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor Iranian nuclear activities. Although the P5+1 agreed, in turn, to suspend peripheral sanctions, the core sanctions (on Iranian oil sales and financial transactions) would be retained.

The first-phase deal is intended to set the stage for negotiating specific terms of a final deal. The Joint Plan also outlines a framework for the ultimate agreement, but the details have yet to be negotiated. Although Iran will remain a nuclear weapons-capable state, the P5+1 will be seeking a deal that provides high confidence that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful and denies Tehran the option of quickly breaking out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to build a nuclear weapon.

Scrupulous adherence to the terms of the first phase will be essential for building confidence that the terms of a comprehensive accord can be negotiated and implemented. Yet the bill advanced by Menendez and his colleagues anticipates the failure of the negotiating phase that is about to begin. It dictates changes in the terms of the agreement already concluded and establishes nonnegotiable preconditions for reaching an ultimate accord.

For these reasons, introducing the bill at this time is opposed not only by President Obama's team of negotiators, but also by 10 committee chairs in the U.S. Senate and even by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Both the U.S. intelligence community and leading former U.S. diplomats assess that passage of the bill would hinder, if not thoroughly sabotage, the prospects for a successful outcome.

Hard-liners in the Iranian parliament have already promised retaliation for the Menendez bill by undoing the concessions made Nov. 24 and intensifying Iran's uranium-enrichment activities. Passage of the bill would constitute a gift to those on both sides who oppose a negotiated outcome.

If the parties in the negotiations do not overreach, diplomatic engagement carries the potential to produce a fundamental transformation in the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program. But getting to the finish line will be a major challenge; many obstacles will have to be surmounted.

The best way to maximize chances for success is to carry out the letter and the spirit of measures agreed to thus far. For Iran, this means honoring all of the "halts" required by the accord and, most important, moving steadily to eliminate Iran's stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium gas, which poses the most serious and urgent "breakout" threat.

For the United States, this means not only moving expeditiously to suspend the peripheral sanctions specified, but also to respect the P5+1's consensus formula for framing a future accord.

Demanding that Iran permanently halt all uranium enrichment - even for peaceful purposes - is unrealistic. Such a deal would be unsustainable politically inside Iran. It would spell the end of outreach efforts by President Hassan Rouhani, dooming prospects for a negotiated agreement and greatly increasing the chance of both war and an Iranian nuclear arsenal.

Instead of seeking Iran's capitulation at the negotiating table, the six powers need to insist on the elements of an agreement necessary to ensure that Iran's nuclear activities are peaceful. As former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have said, this means limiting Iran's nuclear capacity "to plausible civilian uses and to achieve safeguards to ensure that this level is not exceeded."

Senators should stop trying to reopen deals that have already been struck and demanding the impossible for deals yet to be made.