More than a month ago, Iran and the U.S. cut an interim deal on Iran's rogue nuclear program. Since then, Tehran and Washington look to have been engaged in the equivalent of arguing over whether the peace table should be round or square. They've met. They've talked. They've haggled over how to implement the agreement. Iran has allowed some preliminary nuclear inspections. But Tehran is still enriching uranium, still poised to bully its way into the nuclear club and menace the world. The six-month clock to start negotiating a final agreement hasn't even started yet.
Recently a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, led by Illinois Republican Mark Kirk and New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, tried to inject some urgency into this diplomatic snoozefest. They introduced a bill that would trigger new sanctions on Tehran, but only if talks failed. This bill aims to concentrate the minds of Iranian leaders who may believe, after a decade of stalling while they developed their nuclear prowess, that they can continue to bamboozle the U.S. and its Western allies with ... more blather and feigned cooperation.
The legislation would ratchet up the embargo on Iran's oil exports and blacklist Iran's mining, engineering and construction industries. It would cut Iran's access to billions of dollars in overseas bank funds and allow the U.S. to seize foreign-held assets of key regime officials. The key: Nothing - repeat, nothing - would happen unless Iran cheats on its commitments in the interim deal or drags its feet on negotiating a final deal.
But President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the legislation. The administration warns that any move that even appears to impose new sanctions could upset the delicate sensibilities of the brutal mullahs who rule Iran. Tehran could interpret this legislation as a (gasp!) threat and scuttle the talks. Please.
A couple of weeks ago, Iran stormed out of talks because its officials were incensed - incensed! - that the U.S. would enforce its own laws and blacklist a dozen Iranian companies and individuals for ... evading U.S. sanctions. The U.S. said the sanctions were imposed under existing laws and were not new measures.
The Iranians soon returned to the bargaining table. Let's remember that there is only one reason the Iranians are negotiating: U.S. and European Union sanctions have strangled their economy. Unemployment and inflation are raging. Iran's currency is ideal for wallpapering the bathroom.
The Senate bill would strengthen Obama's hand in current and future negotiations. He could shrug and play the good cop, warning the Iranians that he won't be able to hold back more sanctions for long if they don't get serious about cooperating, not just talking about cooperating.
Obama has promised many times that he wouldn't let Iran build the bomb. But opposing this legislation is a signal to the Iranians that they need not worry much about further sanctions, that there's no hurry here, that there really aren't any imminent and painful consequences for stalling. That increases the risks to the world, and the risk that Israel may act in its self-defense.
Every day that Iran stalls, every day that talk trumps action in this interim deal, is another signal that nothing has changed: Iran is still playing for time and winning.