Congress can get tougher on Iran by channeling Reagan, not Netanyahu. It correctly senses that it needs to be tough with Iran but misses an opportunity to take a principled stand that would really make a difference. The open letter to Iran, signed by 47 U.S. senators, including Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, as well as several senators who may run for president, is a warning to Iran that it needs to agree to a better nuclear deal. Inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak about Iran to Congress earlier this month served a similar “we are tough” purpose.
Clearly, Republicans are trying to be more concerned and watchful to ensure a viable and long-term peace with Iran. Ironically, their attempts up to now to get “a much better deal” may do more to jeopardize a better agreement than encourage one. The attempts unintentionally come across as more obstructive than constructive. We can’t afford to play into the hands of Iran’s hard-liners who prefer isolation and undermine the consensus of the P5+1 — a coalition of allies with the U.S. that may not approve of continuing sanctions should negotiations fail.
Add to this a new study by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland that found that 61 percent of informed Americans support making a deal with Iran.
So what is a Congress to do? Is there a way to apply pressure on both Iran and President Barack Obama that both takes the higher moral ground and is more effective in encouraging a better, long-lasting deal?
Yes. But it requires Congress to channel Reagan.
Much like the current nuclear negotiations with Iran, the stakes were high in the autumn of 1986 when President Ronald Reagan sat down with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland. This historic meeting of Cold War foes was an attempt to reduce nuclear arms stockpiles, but that wasn’t all Reagan had in mind.
Reagan went to Reykjavik because he followed the first law of diplomacy: You must negotiate with your enemies. He recognized Gorbachev as being a different type of Soviet leader. But Reagan also knew what it means to be the leader of the free world: You must never forget the oppressed who long for liberty. This meant that during the hours of tough negotiations, Reagan brought up the Soviet Union’s human-rights abuses and the struggles of Soviet dissidents.
For Reagan, the talks were never simply about weapons or acting tough. He was negotiating for a lasting peace, which required a multifaceted approach.
He recognized supporting human rights is more than a moral imperative; it is also in the United States’ best interests. A long-term solution means making Iran move toward freedom, not moving it toward hard-line retrenchment. The only workable path is to deal with those who are trying to open the door from within. Every step toward a free and democratic government in Iran, however small, is a step toward a lasting peace. And from where will lasting change in Iran come if not from those whom hard-liners have oppressed? How many of Iran’s “Nelson Mandelas” are languishing in its jails, waiting for someone to demand their release?
Many in Congress believe that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and believe stronger sanctions will keep up the pressure. But sanctions are like economic chemotherapy. The right amount can kill the cancer. But too much may also kill the patient.
Congress also can’t simply say no to negotiations without implying that they favor military conflict. There should be no talking about bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities without acknowledging that these attacks would be exactly the same as using chemical weapons on civilians — because the resulting toxic and radioactive clouds of hydrogen fluoride and uranium-containing compounds would float into heavily populated cities and kill tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
So Congress, please get tough on Iran. But neither a nuclear deal at all costs, bludgeoning Iranians with new sanctions, nor threatening military action is acting strong. To follow in Reagan’s footsteps, to build a lasting peace, Congress must demand Obama speak out more on human rights in Iran.
If our goal is really to create a safer Iran that will keep its promises and never have access to nuclear weapons, it requires pushing for human rights — the first step in empowering an Iranian society toward a democratic and responsible government. Yes, it is tough. But this is not just what Reagan would do; it is simply what Americans do.
Khosrow Semnani, an Iranian-American industrialist and philanthropist based in Salt Lake City who has a history of supporting the Republican party, is the author of “The Ayatollah’s Nuclear Gamble: Humanitarian Consequences of Military Strikes on Iran.”