Secretary of State John Kerry briefed the Senate Banking Committee today behind closed doors, where he was expected to argue against a push by some senators to impose new sanctions on Iran after the latest round of negotiations between Iran and the so-called "P5+1" (the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the U.S., the UK, Russia, France, and China, plus Germany) ended without a deal. That led Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez to declare that it appeared American negotiators wanted to deal more than their Iranian counterparts. “[W]e seem to want the deal almost more than the Iranians. And you can’t want the deal more than the Iranians, especially when the Iranians are on the ropes,” Menendez told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week while arguing for renewed sanctions against Iran.

Kerry has called that idea a mistake. He acknowledges he voted for sanctions against Iran several times, but considers any vote now “a vote for or against diplomacy.” Kerry was wrong to have voted for sanctions then but is right to call their renewal a mistake now. 

Despite the assertions of supporters of sanctions, it’s not clear that sanctions against Iran up to this point have helped bring talks about. Iran has faced some kind of U.S. sanctions since the 1979 Islamic revolution. They were eased somewhat in the late 1990s after Iran elected the relatively moderate reformist Mohammad Khatami. The subsequent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the resumption of uranium enrichment by Iran in 2006 yielded a new round of sanctions. Iran made several proposals about its nuclear development program in the few years before that to appease Western powers worried about Iran trying to build nuclear weapons. Talks until 2006 were between Iran and France, Germany, and the UK (the “E3”). The U.S., China, and Russia joined that year to form the P5+1, known in Europe as E3+3. The UN passed a number of resolutions in the following years attempting to pressure Iran into a more favorable negotiating position through tougher sanctions, the last of which was passed in 2010.

What the sanctions have done is turn the screws on an already screwy command economy in Iran. In a poor economic climate, political leaders like Ahmadinejad turned to Iran’s nuclear program as a patriotic project, using Iran’s recalcitrance to elicit a rally around the flag effect. Along with the ruling ayatollahs, Iran’s political leadership could blame entirely on American-led sanctions economic woes that are in no small part self-inflicted. Iran’s newly elected president, the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani, may have provided Iran’s political leadership the cover to tone down the nuclear brinksmanship without losing the last of a broken public’s support. In theory, sanctions are meant to pressure political leaders to act in a way favorable to those imposing sanctions. In practice, they are exploited for political advantage not just in the sanctioning country but in the sanctioned as well.

Sanctions, then, at best offer little, and at worse can send countries down a path to war. U.S. sanctions against countries from Cuba to North Korea primarily affect the public of those countries far more than the political leaders, who are generally able to weather the most sustained sanctions effort, and even use them to consolidate more power and stunt attempts at reform. In the case of Iraq, a decade of sanctions prompted by the West’s fear of WMDs led to a disastrous American invasion of the country. Saddam Hussein did not believe the U.S. would attack over concerns Iraq had WMDs, but was apparently certain Iran would do so if it knew he possessed no such weapons. The U.S. invasion of Iraq certainly changed the calculus for strongmen contemplating non-conventional weapons, but it did not change the fundamentals that drive conflict escalation. Were it not for a throw-away comment by John Kerry, the U.S. may have followed a series of red lines into a war in Syria.

The White House may not openly acknowledge the lessons of the Syria situation, but it is acutely aware of them. Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney drew the dotted line between new sanctions while Iran appears to be negotiating in good faith and the prospect of war. “[T]he American people do not want a march to war,” Carney said at yesterday’s daily press briefing.  “And it is important to understand that if pursuing a resolution diplomatically is — is — is disallowed or ruled out, what options, then, do we and our allies have to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon?”

American intelligence officials have been predicting that Iran was just a few years from acquiring nuclear weapons since at least 1996. The U.S. interest in the issue is dubious at best. The European powers whose involvement in negotiations with Iran precedes America’s have clearer interests. Germany, for example, is one of Iran’s largest trading partners, and the countries would likely fall within range of any kind of imagined Iranian nuclear weapon. Israel claims the clearest interest. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent last week warning about giving Iran the “deal of the century.” Israel considers the possibility Iran might acquire nuclear weapons an existential threat and its political leadership is convinced that that’s Iran’s intent. Nevertheless, a report in the Jerusalem Post earlier this month claimed Israeli officials met with Iranian counterparts as well as representatives from other Arab countries and the U.S. to discuss nuclear weapons in the region. Israel is widely believed to be the only power in the region with nuclear weapons. Iran does not officially recognize the state of Israel and even the new president wouldn’t repudiate Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denialism. Nevertheless, both countries would benefit from regional stability, and are incentivized by circumstance to try to work toward it.

The United States has no such incentives, and so the Iran issue becomes something to politicize, as it has been. The U.S. has appointed itself an arbiter over a thoroughly regional security issue. While it is in this role, it should avoid complicating good-faith efforts at negotiations. The U.S. has been meddling in Iran since at least 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow Iran’s prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, and return the shah to power, an event that led to the 1979 revolution that ushered in a decidedly anti-American political establishment. It’s unlikely the U.S. will simply stop meddling now, but it is possible for it to play a constructive role in resolving the nuclear dispute. It won’t be a Nixon in China moment, but John Kerry in Geneva could yet be a major step toward eventually normalizing relations with Iran. He, and more importantly the negotiations, ought to be given the chance without the Senate’s attempt to scuttle them by playing tough guy in a situation the U.S. shouldn’t be in in the first place.