I am very proud of my service in the U.S. House of Representatives. Congress is unfairly maligned in the media, and consequently in public opinion, although I concede that the tea party faction has done a great deal to provide ammunition for that viewpoint.

But just as I came to have some confidence that a newly invigorated Speaker John Bohner is prepared to resist the tea party’s insistence on rule or ruin politics, a new threat has emerged to the reputation of the Congress as a responsible body: the current push to enact a new sanctions bill to punish Iran just as negotiations over their nuclear weapons capacity are showing progress.

At this point I want to add a disclaimer and an endorsement. I began writing this before I had a chance to read last Sunday’s paper. I was very pleased to see my fellow columnist, David Rohde, addressing this subject and coming to the conclusion that I think appropriate. In other circumstance, I would have spared the readers this repetition and chosen another subject, but this issue is sufficiently important so I’m happy to be reinforcing his wisdom.

There is no good justification for Congress satisfying members’ political needs by jeopardizing the first real progress we have made in restraining Iran’s reach for a nuclear weapon. When President Obama took office in 2009, there had been zero progress on this topic. Now a combination of the pressure that Bush and Obama have mobilized and some changes within Iran have given us a chance to succeed.

I am not critical of sanctions. To the contrary, I am very proud that the most important one now employed against Iran, shutting down its banking system, was passed when I was chairman of the Financial Services Committee. And as I have noted previously here, when the Obama administration took office, I endorsed a high-level request from the Israeli government to support the retention of Stuart Levy, the Bush administration appointee in charge of sanctions enforcement.

If the talks break down and the promise of success here turns out to be ephemeral, further tougher sanctions will be called for. But at this point, for Congress now to announce that we do not believe that the Iranians are showing good faith, and that we are going to step up our punishment of them after they made some initial concessions, is clearly a recipe for failure.


Members of Congress know this. Iran is an oppressive society, but it is not a monolith. Clearly there are people within the country who prefer a removal of sanctions and the economic relief that will bring over the ability to possess a nuclear weapon. Others take the opposite view, especially those who are the most anti-Western. Does anyone doubt that our imposing new sanctions at this point will do a great deal to shift the political balance in favor of the hardliners? Do members of Congress really not understand that responding to the Iranians’ flexibility by greatly toughening our own position is unlikely to lead to greater conciliation?

It is true that the agreement does not accomplish what we want all at once. But agreements in this sort of a situation never do. It is very rare for any country – ours, Iran or any other – to make a 180-degree turn in the first set of talks. Clearly this is an opportunity for confidence-building for each side, to give each other the incentive to go further in the desired direction. Do my former colleagues know of any situation in which we were in the midst of a negotiation with a somewhat hostile power and became more conciliatory when the other side became more belligerent?

True, we have no assurance that this will lead to an agreement. That is why the relaxation of sanctions is conditional. Should the Iranians fail to follow through in ways that will achieve the goal we seek, we can easily reimpose them.

I have said that I find it hard to explain what the rationale is for Congress to act in this way. Reluctant as I am to acknowledge it, there are only two possibilities. One is that there are members who believe that only a military assault on Iran will resolve this issue. Some of these are the people who wanted us to engage militarily in Syria, who objected to the president’s decision to remove troops from Iraq and who wish to maintain an indefinite large military presence in Afghanistan. It is also the case that the government of Israel, situated where it is, and knowing of the bitter hostility many Iranian leaders have expressed to its very existence, would understandably rather see a complete overthrow of the Iranian regime than simply an end to the nuclear weapons quest.

So would I. But I do not see any realistic way to achieve this short of all-out war. This is a clear case for not letting the best be the enemy of the good.

The other explanation, of course, is that many members of Congress privately understand that passing this legislation would be irresponsible but are afraid of the political consequences of saying so. I believe in this case they are underestimating the wisdom of the voters, in particular, the realization by increasing numbers of American citizens that we have overused our military force in recent times, greatly adding to our deficit without achieving any policy goals.


Should it turn out that the president – and the foreign leaders with whom he is coordinating – are being too optimistic about the Iranians, we will have every opportunity to reimpose every sanction that now exists and add to them. We must have a plan B in case that happens.

But what troubles me now is that I believe there are people driving this effort to undermine the negotiations not out of a fear they will fail, but because they do not want them to succeed, and that must not be allowed to shape our policy.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

— Special to the Telegram

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