Commentary Magazine


Will the White House Spike Iran Sanctions?

Two years ago Senator Robert Menendez pitched a fit at a committee hearing when Obama administration figures came to the Senate to try and persuade it not to adopt tougher sanctions on Iran. The New Jersey Democrat was especially put out because prior to proposing legislation on the issue with Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, he had agreed to water down the bill at the request of the White House. Having bargained Menendez and Kirk down, the White House then sought to torpedo the weaker bill that was on the verge of passage. Despite that intervention, the bill passed and it became part of a raft of laws the president had consistently opposed but for which he took credit during his reelection campaign. Fast-forward to today and we are about to see the exercise repeated.

As Politico reported earlier this week, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Capitol Hill on Thursday to try and talk Congress out of once again strengthening sanctions on Iran. They claim such a move would harm the chances of progress in the P5+1 talks with Iran that will reconvene next week. But the arguments against tougher sanctions make no more sense today than they did two years ago.

That the administration is going all out to halt the drive to toughen sanctions was apparent yesterday when it called a group of Jewish leaders (without, as is their usual practice, of including more marginal left-wing groups) into the White House to try and get them to back their opposition to the new legislation. They seem to have failed, though the Democrats’ Jewish support group, the National Jewish Democratic Council, appears to be succumbing to the presidential pressure in this respect.

The excuse for the new negotiations with Iran is the supposed moderation of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that is alleged to have created an opening for diplomacy. But the Iranian charm offensive has not impelled Tehran to change its position one bit. The Iranians are still defending their “right” to enrich uranium and refusing to let their stockpile of nuclear fuel out of their country. Both of these points would allow the Iranians to easily cheat on a nuclear deal despite any assurances to the contrary. This was confirmed again today when Iran’s top nuclear official denied the claim that they had already stopped enriching uranium to the 20 percent mark that makes it viable for a weapon.

The past has shown that the only thing that has caused Iran to even talk about the nuclear issue is the threat of increased sanctions. It was the sanctions that the administration belatedly enforced in the last two years that brought about the pain in the Iranian economy that is the impetus of the charm offensive that has fooled so many Westerners. By again trying to stall more sanctions, the president is sending yet another signal to Tehran that he doesn’t intend to keep pressing them, let alone credibly threaten force once the talks prove futile, as they have every previous time in the last decade.

Indeed, if the president were serious about gaining a satisfactory resolution to the dispute with Iran he would be demanding more sanctions from Congress in order to strengthen his hand in the talks, not trying to weaken it.

All this means that, as it has had to do in the past, Congress must rise to the challenge and ignore the advice from Obama, Kerry, and Lew. Just as it forced the president’s hand throughout a five-year period when Obama was more interested in engaging the Iranians than pressuring them, the House and the Senate must act now to finish the economic isolation of the Islamist regime and boost the otherwise dim chances for a diplomatic solution that will prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon rather than merely delaying it.