In about two weeks, diplomats from the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany will sit down in Geneva with their Iranian counterparts to discuss Iran's nuclear program. In a best-case scenario, Iran will agree to international oversight of its nuclear activities in exchange for the easing of tough economic sanctions.
The sanction regime has significantly debilitated the Iranian economy, and is seen as the central factor behind Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's much-ballyhooed charm offensive. After a phone call between Rouhani and President Obama, Western diplomats are cautiously optimistic that a breakthrough on Iran's nukes might finally be on the horizon.
But as with most issues, Republicans don't really trust Obama to get this right. Two months ago, the GOP-led House approved tighter sanctions against Iran. While that bipartisan bill awaits Senate action, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) has introduced another bill that would, among other measures, authorize Obama to use military force to prevent Iran from developing nukes.
The idea, Franks tells The Guardian, is to strengthen the president's hands in the Geneva talks and "inject into the discussion the importance of Mr. Obama not making a bad deal — because a bad deal is worse than no deal at all."
However, as it turns out, House Republicans may have just done Iran a potentially massive favor.
Thanks to the government shutdown, the two programs in charge of overseeing sanctions — the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) and the State Department's sanctions monitoring agency — have been "completely, virtually, utterly depleted," Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday. Furloughs at the NSA and CIA are also hampering intelligence on sanctions violations, she said.
The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin and Eli Lake have some numbers that show the scope of the furloughs: 90 percent of the OFAC's self-explanatory Office of Terrorist Financing and Intelligence (TFI) are out, and only 30 of the 345 employees of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) survived the furloughs. FinCEN's network of banks and the OFAC "are two of the most potent tools the U.S. government has used to pressure Iran," say Rogin and Lake.
So, what might a lapse in sanctions enforcement mean? In broad strokes, says CNN's Jamie Crawford, the furloughs mean the OFAC "is currently unable to sustain its core functions of issuing new sanctions against individuals and entities deemed to be assisting the governments of Iran or Syria, as well as terrorist organizations, narcotics cartels, or proliferators of weapons of mass destruction."
Mark Dubowitz of the pro-Israel Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is more specific, and more alarmist. "At a time where sanctions pressure is the only instrument of U.S. policy that is actually working to persuade the Iranian regime to negotiate over its illicit nuclear program, the Treasury furloughs could not be timed worse," he tells CNN. "With hyper-partisan politics sidelining Treasury's G-Men, Iran's Supreme Leader is getting his sanctions relief without giving up any nuclear concessions."
Speaking to The Daily Beast, Dubowitz predicts that thanks to the furloughs, "the Iranians will engage in massive sanctions busting to try to replenish their dwindling foreign exchange reserves." If the OFAC isn't following Iran's money trail, he adds ominously, "you’ve extended the economic runway of the Iranian regime and increased the likelihood that they could reach nuclear breakout sooner rather than later."
The State Department's Sherman says the U.S. sanctions cops have a little breathing room: "We believe that we have some time, but we don't have a lot of time."
But nobody is arguing that this is anything but good for Iran.
No wonder other countries are laughing at us.