Back in the spring, and several times since then, President Obama suggested that if progress hasn’t been made in the talks with Iran, he’d move toward harsher measures, including what Secretary of State Clinton has called “crippling sanctions.” That time is drawing near, and assorted hawks are clamoring now for Obama to put up or shut up. “You said you’d get tough with Iran,” they’re saying. “The time is now.”
Of course, the time isn’t now. After the October 1 session in Geneva, where some limited success was achieved, the talks have stalled, exactly as I (and many others) predicted. Iran’s internal politics is muddled, and neither the Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, nor President Ahmadinejad, are in a position to strike a deal with the Great Satan just now. They’re under attack from conservatives and reformists opposed to the Oct. 1 deal, which would have sent the bulk of Iran’s enriched uranium to Russia and France for processing, and the anti-Ahmadinejad opposition is showing renewed signs of strength, as evidenced by this week’s round of demonstrations by students and others.
But, in spite of the apparent consensus among the big powers – which produced a tough new resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month – there’s zero chance that either Russia or China will support anything like the embargo on refined oil and gasoline that Obama, in the past, has said he supports. And other key countries, such as India, which has good relations with Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, through which much of Iran’s gasoline imports are transshipped, aren’t likely to back sanctions either. The very best Obama could get, if he goes to the UN Security Council for yet another round of sanctions, is another symbolic set of sanctions that have no force at all.
Despite that, the stupid season is starting.
In front of the stupid parade is Representative Howard Berman. For most of the year, Berman has been huffing and puffing about pushing forward a bill that would enable the president to impose the sort of “crippling sanctions” that Clinton wants. (Even though, of course, unilateral sanctions by the United States, without Russia or China, will hardly be crippling.) Earlier in the year, despite huge pressure from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Berman refused to move his own bill ahead, in deference to Obama’s diplomatic effort to engage Iran. Now, concluding that diplomacy has failed, Berman, who pushed his bill through committee at the end of October, is demanding that the House of Representatives pass the bill next week.
As the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) says about Berman’s bill, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA):
“IRPSA would expand unilateral, extraterritorial sanctions and target companies exporting refined petroleum to Iran or helping to develop Iran’s oil refining industry. Before the hearing, Rep. Berman amended the legislation to make lifting the sanctions in it conditional on Iran ceasing all uranium enrichment.”
As opponents of IRPSA have noted, weak, unilateral sanctions don’t work, they have counterproductive consequences, and they force Iran’s leaders to respond with defiance. (At the same time, strong, multilateral sanctions don’t work either: while they can have enormous effect on Iran’s economy, they only end up hurting the Iranian people – including the opposition, whose leaders oppose sanctions – and they still provoke the same defiance by Iran’s leaders.) Furthermore, because the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its allies have established vast smuggling networks and a military-industrial complex, the IRGC actually benefits from sanctions because they enhance its smuggling activity.
Sadly, it isn’t only AIPAC who’s supporting sanctions. The dovish organization J Street, which calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” apparently doesn’t view “peace” as applying to Iran, since J Street has stupidly endorsed the Berman IRPSA. It’s no surprise: for months J Street has expressed its support for a hard line on Iran, in regard to sanctions, even though it has supported Obama’s talks with Iran. (So has Berman, of course, and even AIPAC hasn’t explicitly opposed the talks.) It’s a black mark for J Street.
The always edifying trio of Jim Walsh, Tom Pickering, and William Luers remind us, in a piece for Arms Control Today, why sanctions against Iran are a bad idea, especially now. They conclude:
“In short, both the opportunities and the stakes with Iran may have increased. Given the challenges that can be expected in any negotiations, the P5+1 needs to be clear about the strategic objective: permit Iran to operate under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but create the inspection, monitoring, and transparency arrangements to assure the best firewall against weapons development. The six countries also need to be open about how to get there, through a negotiation that accepts Iran’s legitimate activities, including enrichment under appropriate safeguards, and does the maximum to block the illegitimate ones. They should avoid all-or-nothing gambles, artificial deadlines, and a preoccupation with tactics. If they do, it may be possible to avoid new sanctions, proliferation, containment, or even war.”
The reality is that the United States faces bleak alternatives with Iran. Since war, or military action, is unthinkable – and would lead to catastrophic consequences – and since sanctions will backfire, the only real choices are a negotiated deal with Iran or, instead, grudging acceptance that Iran can build a nuclear bomb if it wants one. To get a deal, as I’ve repeatedly argued, including in The Nation, the United States has to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich uranium, on its own soil, under the kinds of safeguards that the IAEA could put in place. It’s time for Obama to make it clear that he’s ready to do so.
As long as we’re talking about the stupid season, I can’t let NIAC off the hook. Just as J Street is kowtowing to its American Jewish supporters by pushing for sanctions on Iran, NIAC is kowtowing to its American Iranian supporters by demanding another sort of stupid, and counterproductive effort, namely, by asking Obama to bring human rights into the discussion. Happily, NIAC opposes the IRPSA sanctions bill. But by calling on Obama to start blabbing about human rights in Iran, NIAC is making a huge mistake.
In a piece originally written for the Huffington Post, Trita Parsi and Dokhi Fassihian say:
“Before nuclear diplomacy moves towards a premature ending, the Obama administration must act quickly to reinvigorate its human rights agenda. … Let there be absolute clarity that from a moral standpoint, the United States supports the Iranian people’s quest for democracy and human rights. Silence betrays that clarity.”
Well, of course, the United States supports the democratic movement in Iran. In my view, Obama has made that exceedingly clear. But, what exactly, does NIAC want the United States to do? At a critical stage of the negotiations, when Iran’s politics are inflamed, for the United States to proclaim its support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mehdi Karroubi, and the Green Movement would be tantamount to wrecking the talks. It would force Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, who’ve endorsed the October 1 accord, to refocus on the Great Satan’s interference in Iranian affairs and make it impossible for them to budge an inch toward a compromise.
The Boston Globe, too, weighs in on this:
“Even while continuing to pursue a negotiated resolution of the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, Obama ought to express Americans’ solidarity with the democratic movement in Iran. The students there, playing on the meaning of Obama’s name in Persian (“he’s with us”), have been chanting to him: Either you are with us or you are with them. The right choice could not be more obvious.”
The right choice is obvious: Obama ought to shut up about human rights in Iran, and certainly not introduce a human rights component into the talks with Iran! I say this as someone who spent two weeks in Iran at the time of the June 12 election, and who spent many hours in conversation with the green-clad voters, activists, and students who mobilized for a new Iran before, during, and after the election. I’ve looked into their eyes. But I told them then, and I believe now, that each time the United States expresses support for their movement, it plants another kiss of death on their cheeks.