First, we need to be clear: No one is arguing for imposing new sanctions now. What a majority in Congress, Democrats and Republican alike, favor instead is a bill that would make clear that additional sanctions will be imposed later — if Iran's rulers fail to abide by the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 nations (U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany).
Tough sanctions, originally resisted by the White House, brought Iran's rulers to the table. Congress is saying that the prospect of additional sanctions could keep the Iranians at the table — if they are serious about making a deal, rather than defeating us.
Keep in mind that the Joint Plan of Action, concluded in Geneva in November, has yet to be implemented. Even after the most recent announcements that implementation of the JPA will commence on Monday, we know very little about what Iran's rulers have agreed to do or not do.
Indeed, U.S. officials have admitted that Iran, under the JPA, will be allowed to continue uranium enrichment on some level as well as continue existing practices related to the research and development of advanced centrifuges. In short, Iran appears to have given up very little.
But a study by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (the policy institute I head) and Roubini Global Economics reveals that Iran's economy has already been given a strong boost thanks to the interim agreement and a market perception that the Obama administration is no longer serious about serious sanctions pressure.
Second, we need to be realistic. The current talks are not a "peace process" but only arms limitation and non-proliferation talks. The goal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. The Iranian regime continues to sponsor terrorism and brutally oppress its citizens.
If negotiations succeed, perhaps more is possible — though some skepticism is in order. The 1979 Iranian revolution, which I covered as a young reporter, was not just about overthrowing the shah. It was about reordering the world in line with a radical and bellicose Islamist ideology.
In 1995, Hassan Rouhani, now Iran's president and thought by many to be a moderate, said the "beautiful cry of 'Death to America' unites our nation." Last year, he added: "Saying 'Death to America' is easy. We need to express 'Death to America' with action."
American diplomats should continue to talk softly. But Congress is right to want to give them a big stick — and hope it doesn't need to be used.