United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Obama Says No to New Sanctions for Now

            On November 14, President Barack Obama urged Congress to give diplomacy a chance ahead of another round of talks with Iran. He also pledged to not lift key sanctions on the oil, banking and finance sectors as part of an interim deal. Tehran is scheduled to meet the world’s six major powers on November 20. The following is an excerpt from Obama’s statement.

QUESTION:  Do you have reason to believe that Iran would walk away from nuclear talks if Congress draws up new sanctions?  And would a diplomatic breakdown at this stage leave you no option but military action?  And how do you respond to your critics on the Hill who say that it was only tough sanctions that got Iran to the table, but only tougher sanctions will make it capitulate?
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, let me make a couple of points.  Number one, I've said before and I will repeat:  We do not want Iran having nuclear weapons.  And it would be not only dangerous to us and our allies, but it would be destabilizing to the entire region, and could trigger a nuclear arms race that would make life much more dangerous for all of us.  So our policy is Iran cannot have nuclear weapons.  And I'm leaving all options on the table to make sure that we meet that goal.
Point number two:  The reason we've got such vigorous sanctions is because I and my administration put in place, when I came into office, the international structure to have the most effective sanctions ever.  And so I think it's fair to say that I know a little bit about sanctions, since we've set them up, and made sure that we mobilize the entire international community so that there weren't a lot of loopholes and they really had bite.
And the intention in setting up those sanctions always was to bring the Iranians to the table so that we could resolve this issue peacefully, because that is my preference.  That's my preference because any armed conflict has cost to it, but it's also my preference because the best way to assure that a country does not have nuclear weapons is that they are making a decision not to have nuclear weapons, and we're in a position to verify that they don't have nuclear weapons.
So as a consequence of the sanctions that we put in place  -- and I appreciate all the help, bipartisan help, that we received from Congress in making that happen -- Iran's economy has been crippled.  They had a -5 percent growth rate last year.  Their currency plummeted.  They're having significant problems in just the day-to-day economy on the ground in Iran.  And President Rouhani made a decision that he was prepared to come and have a conversation with the international community about what they could do to solve this problem with us.
We've now had a series of conversations, and it has never been realistic that we would resolve the entire problem all at once.  What we have done is seen the possibility of an agreement in which Iran would halt advances on its program; that it would dilute some of the highly enriched uranium that makes it easier for them to potentially produce a weapon; that they are subjecting themselves to much more vigorous inspections so that we know exactly what they’re doing at all their various facilities; and that that would then provide time and space for us to test, over a certain period of months, whether or not they are prepared to actually resolve this issue to the satisfaction of the international community -- making us confident that, in fact, they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
In return, the basic structure of what’s been talked about, although not completed, is that we would provide very modest relief at the margins of the sanctions that we’ve set up.  But importantly, we would leave in place the core sanctions that are most effective and have most impact on the Iranian economy, specifically oil sanctions and sanctions with respect to banks and financing.  And what that gives us is the opportunity to test how serious are they, but it also gives us an assurance that if it turns out six months from now that they’re not serious, we can crank -- we can dial those sanctions right back up. 
So my message to Congress has been that, let’s see if this short-term, phase-one deal can be completed to our satisfaction where we’re absolutely certain that while we’re talking with the Iranians, they’re not busy advancing their program.  We can buy some additional months in terms of their breakout capacity.  Let’s test how willing they are to actually resolve this diplomatically and peacefully.
We will have lost nothing if, at the end of the day, it turns out that they are not prepared to provide the international community the hard proof and assurances necessary for us to know that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon.  And if that turns out to be the case, then not only is our entire sanctions infrastructure still in place, not only are they still losing money from the fact that they can’t sell their oil and get revenue from their oil as easily, even throughout these talks, but other options remain.
But what I’ve said to members of Congress is that if, in fact, we’re serious about trying to resolve this diplomatically -- because no matter how good our military is, military options are always messy, they’re always difficult, always have unintended consequences, and in this situation are never complete in terms of making us certain that they don’t then go out and pursue even more vigorously nuclear weapons in the future -- if we’re serious about pursuing diplomacy, then there’s no need for us to add new sanctions on top of the sanctions that are already very effective and that brought them to the table in the first place.
Now, if it turns out they can’t deliver, they can’t come to the table in a serious way and get this issue resolved, the sanctions can be ramped back up.  And we’ve got that option.
Click here for the full statement.

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