Obama’s Choice on Iran

Obama’s Choice on Iran

Hawks in Congress want to pile on more sanctions, a strategy that is stupid and counterproductive.


Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran’s presidential election in Tehran June 15, 2013. (Reuters/Fars News/Sina Shiri)

Hassan Rouhani, the surprise winner of the June 14 presidential election in Iran—and a man who has called for better relations with the United States and a deal over Iran’s nuclear program—takes office on August 4. In anticipation of that event, lots of sensible people in the United States, including members of Congress, former diplomats, and a passel of centrist-realist Middle East experts, are calling on President Obama to do everything he can to reach an accord with Rouhani’s new government.

So the question is: Does Obama want America’s first message to Rouhani to be: “Welcome to the presidency, Mr. Rouhani. And we’re piling even more sanctions on your ass.” You’d think not. But that is the message that many Republicans and Democrats in Congress want to send, especially House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Obama should signal immediately that he’ll veto any bill that smells like more sanctions, even though it will be strongly backed by the Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and plenty of neoconservatives and other hawks.

As The Jerusalem Post reports happily:

With 360 co-sponsors in the 435-member body, the bill will pass, and is expected to be matched in the Senate after Congress’s August recess.

According to the Associated Press, the administration isn’t happy about the idea of yet more sanctions, which would be aimed at shutting down Iran’s entire oil and gas industry:

The legislation would blacklist Iran’s mining and construction sectors, effective next year, because they are seen as heavily linked to Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard corps. It also would commit the U.S. to the goal of ending all Iranian oil sales worldwide by 2015, targeting the regime’s biggest revenue generator and prime source of money for its weapons and nuclear programs.

This, of course, is piling stupid on top of stupid. As even the AP says:

If Rouhani is serious about compromise, setting new sanctions in advance of talks risks undercutting him, [a U.S. official] said. Even if the new Iranian leader isn’t serious, the oil measures in particular are problematic, turning a potential U.S. diplomatic success into a failure.

If China or Japan, for example, decides to flout the U.S. demand to stop all importing from Iran, the administration would then have to weigh enforcing the law by blacklisting Chinese and Japanese banks and companies at the risk of widespread economic harm—including for Americans. The likelier result is that the U.S. does nothing, making the sanctions look hollow and eroding international solidarity on pressuring Iran.

There’s a useful counterpoint to such nonsense, coming from at least 131 members of the US House of Representatives, who’ve signed a letter to President Obama calling on Obama to take advantage of Rouhani’s election to seek a new beginning with Iran. Says the letter:

“Given the stakes involved for the United States, Israel, and the international community, it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a genuine opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. …

“We must also be careful not to foreclose the possibility of such progress by taking provocative actions that could weaken the newly elected president’s standing relative to Iran’s hardliners.”

By “provocative actions,” the letter might be referring to additional economic sanctions, but—somewhat lacking in courage—the letter doesn’t say.

Meanwhile, let’s be honest here. A letter from a rump group of 131 members of Congress, mostly the usual suspects in the progressive caucus and few others, isn’t going to stop AIPAC’s freight train. But it’s encouraging, and it provides cover for Obama if and when he chooses to veto the bill—which might or might not get through the House this week but won’t get to Menendez’s Senate until the fall.

Meanwhile, an important bloc of Iran experts—including former top military, State Department and intelligence officials—last week called on Obama to “reinvigorate diplomacy” with Iran. They wrote:

The election of Hassan Rouhani to be Iran’s next president presents a major potential opportunity to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. We strongly encourage your Administration to seize the moment to pursue new multilateral and bilateral negotiations with Iran once Rouhani takes office and to avoid any provocative action that could narrow the window of opportunity for a more moderate policy out of Tehran.

Once the new president has been inaugurated, the United States should pursue coordinated multilateral engagement on the nuclear issue through the P5+1. Additionally, the U.S. should prepare to redouble its efforts to pursue direct, bilateral negotiations with Iran to engage on issues beyond the nuclear file, such as human rights and regional security. After assessing the orientation of the new Iranian government, the U.S. and partners should prepare to offer a new set of proposals to limit Iran’s enrichment and nuclear materials stockpiles combined with stringent oversight and verification measures.

Among the signers: ex-Ambassador Chas Freeman; General Joseph Hoar, ex-commander of Centcom; Larry Korb, former assistant secretary of defense; Ambassador Tom Pickering, a former Under Secretary of State; Paul Pillar, a former top intelligence analyst at the National Intelligence Council; and many others.

Two of those who signed that letter—Pickering and Jim Walsh, an Iran expert at MIT, plus William Luers, a Columbia University professor and director of The Iran Project—explain their reasoning at length in a piece for The New York Review of Books. In it, the three experts reject “coercive diplomacy,” and they outline what a deal might look like:

It is possible to identify the core elements of a realistic first step for resolving the nuclear dispute. Iran would agree to limit its 20 percent enrichment program and not to stockpile such material—or alternatively, to end 20 percent enrichment in return for a guaranteed supply of fuel elements. (It is not yet confirmed that the 20 percent enriched fuel Iran has so far produced is of adequate quality for use in a reactor.) Iran would also agree not to separate plutonium—which could be used for an implosion bomb. In addition, Iran would fully open up its nuclear facilities to greater and more frequent IAEA oversight and adopt and implement the Additional Protocol (initially agreed to in 2003), which would augment the IAEA’s authority to carry out inspections.

For its part, the United States and its negotiating partners would agree to accept Iran’s peaceful nuclear program (including some enrichment), and lift some of the most severe sanctions (including sanctions on trading in precious metals, European limitations on oil imports, and some banking constraints). Washington could agree to a process for the step-by-step lifting of all the UN sanctions in response to further progress. This initial agreement might provide for a verifiable trial period during which each side would be expected to comply with the interim deal.

Here’s a test of which way Obama might do. On August 4, let’s see if he sends a note of congratulations to Rouhani as he takes office. On June 14, as the election results become clear, the administration seemed to welcome Rouhani, though skeptically—and, rather churlishly, Obama didn’t send a diplomatic note to Rouhani. On August 4, he gets another chance.

Bob Dreyfuss on why negotiations with Iran have significant implications for the war in Syria.

Ad Policy