Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iran sanctions

Sanctions Stall Doesn’t Signal AIPAC’s Fall

After amassing an impressive 58 senators from both parties to co-sponsor a bill calling for new sanctions on Iran in case the current negotiations end in failure, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Alarmed by what it felt was a threat to its diplomacy with Iran, the administration and its backers launched an all-out attack on the measure, claiming its passage would so offend Tehran that it would end nuclear talks with the West and leave the United States no alternative but to go to war. Even worse, some of the president’s supporters claimed that the only reason so many legislators, including 16 Democrats, would back the bill was that they were acting, in the words of influential television comedian Jon Stewart, as senators “from the great state of Israel.” This not-so-subtle invocation of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard in which a vast pro-Israel conspiracy manipulates a helpless Congress paid off by wealthy Jews to the detriment of American interests has become a chestnut of Washington policy debates, but one the administration’s cheerleaders haven’t hesitated to invoke.

All this has chilled a debate about passing more Iran sanctions that might be considered moot in any case since as long as Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to keep the bill from coming to a vote, it has little chance of passage. But rather than discuss the administration’s scorched-earth campaign on the issue, the New York Times prefers to join with the administration in taking another shot at the arch-villain of the supporters of the conspiratorial view of U.S. foreign policy put forward in the infamous “Israel Lobby” thesis: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to the Times, the lull in the battle over sanctions is a sign that AIPAC is losing its touch on Capitol Hill. This is considered good news for the administration and critics of the pro-Israel lobby and the bipartisan community for which it speaks. But while AIPAC can’t be happy with the way it and other advocates of sanctions have been brushed back in this debate, reports of its decline are highly exaggerated. While the administration has won its point for the moment in stalling the bill, the idea that it has won the political war over Iran is, at best, premature.

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After amassing an impressive 58 senators from both parties to co-sponsor a bill calling for new sanctions on Iran in case the current negotiations end in failure, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Alarmed by what it felt was a threat to its diplomacy with Iran, the administration and its backers launched an all-out attack on the measure, claiming its passage would so offend Tehran that it would end nuclear talks with the West and leave the United States no alternative but to go to war. Even worse, some of the president’s supporters claimed that the only reason so many legislators, including 16 Democrats, would back the bill was that they were acting, in the words of influential television comedian Jon Stewart, as senators “from the great state of Israel.” This not-so-subtle invocation of the Walt-Mearsheimer canard in which a vast pro-Israel conspiracy manipulates a helpless Congress paid off by wealthy Jews to the detriment of American interests has become a chestnut of Washington policy debates, but one the administration’s cheerleaders haven’t hesitated to invoke.

All this has chilled a debate about passing more Iran sanctions that might be considered moot in any case since as long as Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to keep the bill from coming to a vote, it has little chance of passage. But rather than discuss the administration’s scorched-earth campaign on the issue, the New York Times prefers to join with the administration in taking another shot at the arch-villain of the supporters of the conspiratorial view of U.S. foreign policy put forward in the infamous “Israel Lobby” thesis: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). According to the Times, the lull in the battle over sanctions is a sign that AIPAC is losing its touch on Capitol Hill. This is considered good news for the administration and critics of the pro-Israel lobby and the bipartisan community for which it speaks. But while AIPAC can’t be happy with the way it and other advocates of sanctions have been brushed back in this debate, reports of its decline are highly exaggerated. While the administration has won its point for the moment in stalling the bill, the idea that it has won the political war over Iran is, at best, premature.

The chief problem with the article is that its premise is based on the myth that AIPAC is a monolithic and unstoppable group that can pass any bill it likes. The article’s assertion that AIPAC has gotten its way on every public policy issue since its futile effort to stop the Reagan administration from selling AWACS planes to Saudi Arabia in 1981 is foolish. AIPAC rarely, if ever, directly challenges presidents and when it does it inevitably comes out on the short end, as in its confrontation with the George H.W. Bush administration over loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 when the elder President Bush depicted himself as “one, lonely, little guy” standing up to AIPAC. Written by White House correspondent Mark Landler, one of whose previous recent forays into foreign policy was a sycophantic paean to the virtues of Secretary of State John Kerry, today’s equally slanted piece simplifies the congressional debate on Iran—which has been driven as much, if not more, by longstanding Senate sanctions activists such as Senate Foreign Policy Committee chair Robert Menendez and his Republican counterpart Mark Kirk than outside lobbyists—into a one-on-one duel between Obama and AIPAC.

That suits the administration since it wishes to show itself as having bested AIPAC. But it dramatically distorts the truth about the way AIPAC operates and its aversion to involvement in partisan debates. The charge that the group is biased toward Republicans is bunk. The group and its large cadre of supporters throughout the nation are only interested in whether a member of Congress is a supporter of Israel and enthusiastically backs Democrats who fit that description and does the same for those in the GOP. Nor is it the American branch of the Likud, as some falsely assert and Landler implies in his misleading article. The group’s guiding principle is respect for Israeli democracy and when that means, as it did for much of the 1990s, backing a left-wing government that embraced Oslo, that stand was a source of frustration to AIPAC supporters sympathetic to the Israeli right. Its primary purpose is to encourage support for the alliance between the two countries and that goal is bound to disappoint partisans on both ends of the political spectrum.

It is precisely because AIPAC is not equipped for partisan battles that it’s invariably reluctant to directly challenge any president. That was true last year when it passed on the opportunity to oppose Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense despite his vocal support for Walt-Mearsheimer slurs, and it is true today when it has decided to tread lightly on the Iran sanctions issue rather than express open opposition to the president.

By smearing all those who want a measure that would actually strengthen his hand in negotiations with Iran as warmongers, the president has faced down AIPAC and the pro-sanctions bipartisan Senate majority. But if, as is likely, the administration’s Iran diplomacy yields no dismantling of Iran’s nuclear program and its stockpile of enriched uranium, the president will find himself facing the same bipartisan majority demanding more sanctions and action on Iran led by Menendez, his own party’s foreign-policy point man.

In the meantime, when AIPAC supporters gather by the thousands next month in Washington, the message to the group from Congress will give the lie to the conceit of Landler’s piece. Liberals hoped that alternatives to the mainstream pro-Israel group, such as J Street, would equal or supersede the organization. But after more than five years the leftist alternative remains without influence in Congress or in an administration that has proved time and again that it knows it must reckon with AIPAC as the principal voice of pro-Israel opinion in this country. AIPAC’s power does not reside in a mythical ability to override the will of presidents but in the simple fact that support for the Jewish state transcends party politics as well as ethnic or religious lines.

It says something disturbing about this administration that it has been more solicitous of the sensibilities of the Islamist dictators of Iran in the past few months than those of Americans who care about Israel’s security. But anyone, including the White House correspondent of the Times, who expects an all-out war between the Obama administration and AIPAC in the coming months is misinterpreting both AIPAC’s purpose and the ability of the White House to sustain its dangerous push for détente with Tehran in the absence of any tangible progress toward ending the Iranian nuclear threat.

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The Difference Between Iran and the USSR

In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

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In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

The interim nuclear accord does require Iran to halt the installation of new centrifuges and to stop enriching uranium at higher weapons-grade levels. But the centrifuges are still turning and their output can easily be converted to use for a bomb after a short “breakout” period. Even more deceptive is the president’s description of the disposal of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel. It is being converted into oxide powder, but that is not the same as elimination. To the contrary, it can be easily reconverted into its previous form and then enriched further to reach the levels necessary for use in a bomb.

Nor are the inspections anywhere close to being as intrusive as Obama described. In particular, the International Atomic Energy Agency is still unable to monitor Iran’s military nuclear research facilities. Indeed, the accord signed in November by Secretary of State Kerry didn’t even mention them.

But just as misleading is the analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union that the United States dealt with in the past.

The president is correct in distinguishing the Soviet Union, a nuclear power, from Iran, a potential one.  But that is exactly the reason that the president’s decision to discard the military and economic leverage the U.S. possessed in talks with Iran last fall was so profoundly dangerous. In doing so the president decided to not only loosen existing sanctions but to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium with a deal that allowed that activity to continue unabated even as the president deceitfully described the accord as freezing Iran’s program.

The reasoning behind this astonishing retreat was the very opposite of America’s negotiating tactics—especially under Reagan—with the Soviets. The current U.S. retreat is premised in a belief that Iran is too strong and too determined not to be pressured by sanctions into giving up its nuclear program.

If the Soviet Union negotiated with the U.S. and wound up ultimately reducing its nuclear stockpile, as Reagan demanded, rather than merely limiting their increase, it was because they understood that he could not be intimidated. The Soviets knew they were dealing with a principled president. But the interim agreement with Tehran has convinced the Iranians of just the opposite about Obama. Having thus far persuaded him to accept enrichment and reduce sanctions, they have every reason to think he will go even further to appease them.

The Kennedy precedent provides yet another cautionary tale. In his first meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, Kennedy admitted that he was insufficiently prepared for dealing with the Russian and the result was far from satisfactory. Though Kennedy had rightly opposed pressure to evacuate Berlin, he later told the New York Times that Khrushchev had “beaten the hell out of me” and left the meeting convinced that JFK was a political lightweight. It was this impression of weakness that led the Soviets to underestimate Kennedy and led to further provocations in the form of the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That is an unfortunate precedent for Obama, whose supine position toward Iran ill becomes the American president and has similarly convinced Iran’s leaders that they need not fear his occasional threats to use force against them. Given the weakness of his position, he should welcome measures such as the bipartisan sanctions bill that has the support of 58 senators that would strengthen his hand in the talks.

Instead, he threatens a veto lest the proposal upset his Iranian negotiating partners. Rather than confirming the seriousness of his purpose, this irresponsible passage in the State of the Union will only reaffirm the Iranians’ belief that they can stand up to the U.S. and set the stage for either an American retreat on the nuclear issue or a confrontation that might be avoided by exactly the Senate measure the president opposes.

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The Slow-Motion Munich Agreement

In an interview with Robert Gates, posted on Friday, Hugh Hewitt asked the former defense secretary to respond to John Bolton’s characterization of the Iranian deal as another Munich (and Charles Krauthammer’s characterization of it as a catastrophe more cynical than Munich). Gates did not directly respond, but he set forth a procedure designed to prevent it from being one:

I think what’s really important is what happens in six months. And my view is that the administration ought to set a specific date. … [W]hat I would be arguing if I were in the Situation Room is okay, then the negotiations begin on whatever the date, January 25th or whatever. Exactly six months from then, the negotiations stop. Either they’re successful or they’re not, because the Iranians are perhaps the world’s best at slow rolling a negotiation … I don’t see why there is opposition to the Congress passing sanctions that would be triggered at that six month point, so that in essence, the message to the Iranians is if there is no successful negotiations, an agreement at the end of six months, you are going to be significantly worse off than you were when these negotiations began. It’s not going to be a return to the status quo before the negotiations.

Gates must be one of those people who want war rather than peace in our time.

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In an interview with Robert Gates, posted on Friday, Hugh Hewitt asked the former defense secretary to respond to John Bolton’s characterization of the Iranian deal as another Munich (and Charles Krauthammer’s characterization of it as a catastrophe more cynical than Munich). Gates did not directly respond, but he set forth a procedure designed to prevent it from being one:

I think what’s really important is what happens in six months. And my view is that the administration ought to set a specific date. … [W]hat I would be arguing if I were in the Situation Room is okay, then the negotiations begin on whatever the date, January 25th or whatever. Exactly six months from then, the negotiations stop. Either they’re successful or they’re not, because the Iranians are perhaps the world’s best at slow rolling a negotiation … I don’t see why there is opposition to the Congress passing sanctions that would be triggered at that six month point, so that in essence, the message to the Iranians is if there is no successful negotiations, an agreement at the end of six months, you are going to be significantly worse off than you were when these negotiations began. It’s not going to be a return to the status quo before the negotiations.

Gates must be one of those people who want war rather than peace in our time.

In opposing even contingent sanctions, taking effect only if the Iranians violate their deal or if the deal does not dismantle the nuclear-weapons program, the administration has been making a fundamentally illogical argument: sanctions are what brought Iran to the table (they say), but contingent sanctions would make them leave it. Sanctions have been an effective tool (they say), but contingent ones would be counter-productive. Sanctions produced negotiations (they say), but contingent sanctions would end them. The administration’s former defense secretary apparently disagrees. 

In the interview, Gates set forth his view of what any sanctions-avoiding agreement six months from now must provide:

[F]rom my standpoint, the only agreement that we ought to be willing to sign up to is one that rolls back the Iranian program to the point where they are no longer a nuclear weapon threshold state, a state that could go to a nuclear weapon relatively quickly.

Under present circumstances, what is assured in six months is another six-month agreement, as even Obama’s former top arms-control adviser admits. In fact, it will be another eight-month agreement (the current six-month one took two extra months to determine when it would begin), since the six-month extension will itself probably take two-months to negotiate, as the parties discuss the additional sanctions relief necessary to keep Iran at the table. We are in for a rolling series of extensions, as the world’s best in slow-rolling negotiations keeps whirring its centrifuges, works on its missile technology, advances its off-site preparations for its plutonium facility, completes its secret sites, and perfects its breakout capacity.

It is part of a slow-motion Munich agreement. It might be avoided under the Gates plan–contingent sanctions and a six-month time limit–but this is an administration now functioning without a defense secretary in a policy-making position. If there is to be a Gates plan, it will have to come from Congress.

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Why the West Buys Iran’s PR Campaign

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the Davos Forum in Switzerland yesterday sounded all the familiar Western-friendly themes that he has used throughout his charm offensive. He reassured the world that Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons and seeks only peaceful reconciliation with the West. According to the New York Times, he was well-received by most of the foreign-policy wonks and government officials in attendance who were only too happy to buy into his talk of “prudent moderation” and “constructive engagement” which was, as one attendee called it, “an application to rejoin the international community.”

Israel was alone in pouring cold water on the festivities, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the bad manners to note that Rouhani’s peaceful rhetoric was, in reality, belied by his country’s ongoing nuclear project, its ballistic missile program, its support for international terrorism, and its daily calls for Israel’s destruction. Even Israeli President Shimon Peres—an inveterate enthusiast of the sort of diplomatic mummery for which the annual meetings at Davos are known—mournfully observed that Rouhani had omitted any mention of any support for Middle East peace talks or any commitment to stop Iran’s missile development and shipment of arms to  Syria’s Bashar Assad and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.

But Israeli criticisms are falling have fallen on deaf ears both in Davos and in the Obama administration, which remains committed to the cheery fiction that Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s faux presidential election last year was a signal of a major reset in the affairs of the Islamic Republic. But if Americans are falling for Rouhani’s transparent deceptions, it’s worth asking why. The answer doesn’t come from Davos but rather what preceded the international gathering last week in a segment on Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart’s political comedy is a reliable barometer of what liberals are thinking and has, at times, even won praise from some writing here in COMMENTARY for his willingness to call out Democrats for their hypocrisy. But on Iran, Stewart has gone all out for the administration’s embrace of Rouhani. In a segment called “Let’s Break a Deal” he told us all we need to know about why so many in the West refuse to give serious thought to the Iranian nuclear threat.

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Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s speech at the Davos Forum in Switzerland yesterday sounded all the familiar Western-friendly themes that he has used throughout his charm offensive. He reassured the world that Iran doesn’t want nuclear weapons and seeks only peaceful reconciliation with the West. According to the New York Times, he was well-received by most of the foreign-policy wonks and government officials in attendance who were only too happy to buy into his talk of “prudent moderation” and “constructive engagement” which was, as one attendee called it, “an application to rejoin the international community.”

Israel was alone in pouring cold water on the festivities, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the bad manners to note that Rouhani’s peaceful rhetoric was, in reality, belied by his country’s ongoing nuclear project, its ballistic missile program, its support for international terrorism, and its daily calls for Israel’s destruction. Even Israeli President Shimon Peres—an inveterate enthusiast of the sort of diplomatic mummery for which the annual meetings at Davos are known—mournfully observed that Rouhani had omitted any mention of any support for Middle East peace talks or any commitment to stop Iran’s missile development and shipment of arms to  Syria’s Bashar Assad and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon.

But Israeli criticisms are falling have fallen on deaf ears both in Davos and in the Obama administration, which remains committed to the cheery fiction that Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s faux presidential election last year was a signal of a major reset in the affairs of the Islamic Republic. But if Americans are falling for Rouhani’s transparent deceptions, it’s worth asking why. The answer doesn’t come from Davos but rather what preceded the international gathering last week in a segment on Comedy Central’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Stewart’s political comedy is a reliable barometer of what liberals are thinking and has, at times, even won praise from some writing here in COMMENTARY for his willingness to call out Democrats for their hypocrisy. But on Iran, Stewart has gone all out for the administration’s embrace of Rouhani. In a segment called “Let’s Break a Deal” he told us all we need to know about why so many in the West refuse to give serious thought to the Iranian nuclear threat.

In the segment, Stewart hailed the interim nuclear deal with Iran as a “historic treaty” that would ensure that it would not be able to develop nuclear weapons. He castigated its critics and those who advocate a new sanctions bill that would take effect if the current talks fail, assailing them with his typical contempt and vitriol. According to Stewart the fact that 58 U.S. senators want more sanctions—something the administration deceitfully claims will blow up the diplomatic process—is just another example of the “immaturity and lack of self-control” of the Senate. He claimed the senators were ignorant of the terms of the deal, and then piled on further by saying the real reason for their doubts about Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal is their loyalty to Israel. He joked that the 58 were acting as “senators from the great state of Israel” rather than representing American interests. The idea of listening to Israel’s concerns on a matter that involves a threat to its existence was further satirized when he favorably compared Rouhani’s insults directed at the administration’s claims about the nuclear deal to criticisms aimed at Secretary of State John Kerry over peace talks with the Palestinians by Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon.

Stewart’s use of the same Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” myths that cross the line into anti-Semitism is thinly disguised bigotry aimed at delegitimizing the efforts of pro-Israel Americans to point out the folly of this administration’s dangerously gullible Iran policy before it is too late.

But even if you strip away his vile slanders, the basic message of Stewart’s rant, like that of other defenders of the rush to rapprochement with Iran, is something much more basic: they genuinely don’t care about Iran’s lies or about the deadly nature of the Iranian nuclear threat. They just want the issue to go away and if that requires smearing the Israelis or fellow Americans who have given serious consideration to the terms of the deal, then that is exactly what they will do.

Though Stewart pretended that it was the sanctions advocates who didn’t understand the situation, his unfunny tirade demonstrated his own ignorance and his lack of interest in the facts about what the Iranians have gained from the interim deal in terms of unraveling sanctions or how little they are giving up in terms of their nuclear development (a point confirmed at Davos by the Iranians). All Jon Stewart and those for whom he was shilling care about is acting as the administration’s cheerleaders on a treaty that would create détente with a tyrannical, terrorist-sponsoring anti-Semitic regime that is bent on wiping Israel off the map.

People like Stewart and others who are buying Rouhani’s act aren’t doing so because they love Iran or even because they despise Israel and enjoy its discomfort at the prospect of a deadly enemy being embraced and empowered by the West, though some obviously do like that aspect. What they really like about Iran’s decision to create a new façade of cordiality to the West—one that seems to them to be a repudiation of Rouhani’s repulsive predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—is that it allows them to pretend that there is nothing to worry about. Rouhani allows them to live in denial as Ahmadinejad did not. As long as an open villain like Ahmadinejad was the front man for the regime, it was hard to ignore the truth about Iran’s bid for regional hegemony or its desire to annihilate Israel. But with Rouhani they can, like the Obama administration itself, treat the Middle East as a former problem from which they may now withdraw in comfort.

We know Rouhani’s charm offensive is effective because it’s accomplished what every good public-relations campaign aims to do: tell people what they want to hear and persuade them it’s the truth even when it’s a lie. Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that those who are willing and able to see reality—like the Israelis and those Americans who share their legitimate concerns about the direction of American foreign policy—are going to be subjected to continued mockery and abuse.

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Will Obama Bypass Congress on Iran?

Over the past several weeks, the White House has been waging an increasingly nasty fight to stop congressional action to put new Iran sanctions in place in the event that the current round of nuclear talks fail. Although 58 senators have co-sponsored the proposed legislation that would tighten the restrictions on doing business with the tyrannical Islamist regime, the Obama administration seems to have acquired the upper hand in the battle. This is largely because of specious arguments claiming those who want to give the president more leverage in the next round of negotiations are actually seeking war rather than a diplomatic solution when the reality is just the opposite. The only hope for a deal that would avert an outcome in which the U.S. would have to choose between the use of force and a nuclear Iran is the adoption of tougher sanctions that would force the ayatollahs to give up their nuclear dreams.

But the current uphill struggle by a majority of the Senate to ensure that the end of the current talks doesn’t lead to a collapse of the sanctions may be only a sideshow to the real fight over Iran that lies ahead in 2014. As the Washington Free Beacon reports, the administration is thinking ahead to the next step in the debate over Iran and exploring the possibility of lifting sanctions without congressional approval.

Congressional insiders say that the White House is worried Congress will exert oversight of the deal and demand tougher nuclear restrictions on Tehran in exchange for sanctions relief.

Top White House aides have been “talking about ways to do that [lift sanctions] without Congress and we have no idea yet what that means,” said one senior congressional aide who works on sanctions. “They’re looking for a way to lift them by fiat, overrule U.S. law, drive over the sanctions, and declare that they are lifted.”

Although only Congress has the power to revoke the sanctions it has enacted, this is not a far-fetched scenario. It is entirely possible that the president may wish to end sanctions on his own. That could come as the result of a nuclear deal that failed to satisfy those who rightly worry about the possibility of an agreement that left Iran with its nuclear infrastructure intact. Or it might be part of a further effort to appease Tehran by scaling back sanctions in order to entice it to sign a deal. And the president believes he can achieve these ends by executive action that would come dangerously close to unconstitutional behavior, but for which Congress might have no remedy.

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Over the past several weeks, the White House has been waging an increasingly nasty fight to stop congressional action to put new Iran sanctions in place in the event that the current round of nuclear talks fail. Although 58 senators have co-sponsored the proposed legislation that would tighten the restrictions on doing business with the tyrannical Islamist regime, the Obama administration seems to have acquired the upper hand in the battle. This is largely because of specious arguments claiming those who want to give the president more leverage in the next round of negotiations are actually seeking war rather than a diplomatic solution when the reality is just the opposite. The only hope for a deal that would avert an outcome in which the U.S. would have to choose between the use of force and a nuclear Iran is the adoption of tougher sanctions that would force the ayatollahs to give up their nuclear dreams.

But the current uphill struggle by a majority of the Senate to ensure that the end of the current talks doesn’t lead to a collapse of the sanctions may be only a sideshow to the real fight over Iran that lies ahead in 2014. As the Washington Free Beacon reports, the administration is thinking ahead to the next step in the debate over Iran and exploring the possibility of lifting sanctions without congressional approval.

Congressional insiders say that the White House is worried Congress will exert oversight of the deal and demand tougher nuclear restrictions on Tehran in exchange for sanctions relief.

Top White House aides have been “talking about ways to do that [lift sanctions] without Congress and we have no idea yet what that means,” said one senior congressional aide who works on sanctions. “They’re looking for a way to lift them by fiat, overrule U.S. law, drive over the sanctions, and declare that they are lifted.”

Although only Congress has the power to revoke the sanctions it has enacted, this is not a far-fetched scenario. It is entirely possible that the president may wish to end sanctions on his own. That could come as the result of a nuclear deal that failed to satisfy those who rightly worry about the possibility of an agreement that left Iran with its nuclear infrastructure intact. Or it might be part of a further effort to appease Tehran by scaling back sanctions in order to entice it to sign a deal. And the president believes he can achieve these ends by executive action that would come dangerously close to unconstitutional behavior, but for which Congress might have no remedy.

The key to any unilateral action by the president on sanctions is effective enforcement. It has long been understood by insiders that the U.S. government has only selectively enforced the existing sanctions on Iran. In 2010, the New York Times reported that more than 10,000 exemptions had already been granted by the Treasury Department to companies wishing to transact business with Iran. Since then there have been worries that the administration has been slow to open new cases by which suspicious economic activity with Iran could be proscribed.

As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted in a paper published in November 2013, the president can legitimize a policy of non-enforcement by the granting of waivers that could effectively gut any and all sanctions enacted by Congress. The only effective check on such a decision would be the political firestorm that would inevitably follow a relaxation of the sanctions that would be accurately viewed as a craven offering to the ayatollahs and also an affront to both Congress and America’s Middle East allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia that rightly fear a nuclear Iran.

The administration has already made clear on other contentious issues, such as the application of immigration law, that it will only enforce laws with which it agrees. This is clearly unconstitutional, but as we have already seen with the president’s unilateral actions on immigration, Congress cannot prevent him from doing what he likes in these matters. The same might be true on Iran sanctions, especially if he is prepared to double down on inflammatory arguments falsely labeling sanctions proponents as warmongers.

Having begun the process of loosening sanctions on Iran with the interim deal signed in November and seemingly intent on promoting a new détente with Tehran, it requires no great leap of imagination to envision the next step in this process. Unless the president produces a deal that truly ends the Iranian nuclear threat—something that would require the dismantling of Iran’s facilities and ensuring it could not possibly continue enriching uranium or building plutonium plants—a confrontation with Congress is likely. In that event, it appears probable that the president will choose to run roughshod over the will of Congress and the rule of law.

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Iran Biz Boom May Already Doom Talks

The Obama administration and other opponents of the pending Senate bill that would tighten sanctions on Iran in the event the current nuclear negotiations fail, claim it would blow up the diplomatic process. This makes no sense because the Iranians are the principal beneficiaries of the talks and have far more to lose than the West if the talks collapse because they would then lose the  chance to get all the sanctions lifted. But the administration and its defenders also claim the bill is unnecessary since the current sanctions are still working (despite being weakened during the interim accord) and can easily be strengthened in the event that Washington concedes that the process has failed at the expiration of the six-month period for negotiations, which begins today.

But the problem with that argument, as the New York Times reported on Friday, is that Iran is open for international business now. While there have been signs indicating that Iran’s economy is already recovering from the impact of sanctions, the interim accord has led to a parade of European businessmen trooping to Tehran to lay the groundwork for what they see as the impending collapse of the restrictions on transactions with the Islamist regime. Indeed, according to the Times one of the busiest people in the Iranian capital is Hossein Sheikholeslami, the former terrorist (he was one of the “students” responsible for holding American diplomats hostage in 1979) assigned to fielding offers from nations including Germany, Italy, and Finland which, despite their nominal allegiance to the U.S.-led sanctions coalition, are champing at the bit to get their bids in now for contracts to do business in Iran.

Seen in that light, we won’t have to wait until July to know whether the latest P5+1 with Iran talks will succeed. If the sanctions are coming apart at the seams today, then the interim accord has already failed.

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The Obama administration and other opponents of the pending Senate bill that would tighten sanctions on Iran in the event the current nuclear negotiations fail, claim it would blow up the diplomatic process. This makes no sense because the Iranians are the principal beneficiaries of the talks and have far more to lose than the West if the talks collapse because they would then lose the  chance to get all the sanctions lifted. But the administration and its defenders also claim the bill is unnecessary since the current sanctions are still working (despite being weakened during the interim accord) and can easily be strengthened in the event that Washington concedes that the process has failed at the expiration of the six-month period for negotiations, which begins today.

But the problem with that argument, as the New York Times reported on Friday, is that Iran is open for international business now. While there have been signs indicating that Iran’s economy is already recovering from the impact of sanctions, the interim accord has led to a parade of European businessmen trooping to Tehran to lay the groundwork for what they see as the impending collapse of the restrictions on transactions with the Islamist regime. Indeed, according to the Times one of the busiest people in the Iranian capital is Hossein Sheikholeslami, the former terrorist (he was one of the “students” responsible for holding American diplomats hostage in 1979) assigned to fielding offers from nations including Germany, Italy, and Finland which, despite their nominal allegiance to the U.S.-led sanctions coalition, are champing at the bit to get their bids in now for contracts to do business in Iran.

Seen in that light, we won’t have to wait until July to know whether the latest P5+1 with Iran talks will succeed. If the sanctions are coming apart at the seams today, then the interim accord has already failed.

As critics of the interim accord signed in Geneva in November said at the time, the decision by the Obama administration to begin the process of loosening sanctions just at the moment when they appeared most effective in their goal of forcing Iran to end its nuclear program was nothing short of a fatal mistake. Though the president has mocked the idea that the new sanctions being considered by the Senate would strengthen his hand in the talks, his decision to grant the Iranians significant relief from the earlier sanctions has already begun the process by which the entire edifice of economic restrictions is virtually in shambles.

As the Times story illustrates, the actions of European nations that were unenthusiastic about sanctions from the start (which could also be said of the Obama administration since it opposed the current tough sanctions when Congress debated their adoption) are allowing the Iranians to claim that the sanctions regime is tottering. This will strengthen Tehran’s hand in negotiations since it may reasonably conclude the U.S. can’t count on international support for renewed sanctions if, as is more than likely, the Iranians refuse to dismantle or even substantially degrade their nuclear program in the coming talks.

Nor is the interest in resuming business with the Islamist tyrants confined to a few outliers or even only Europeans:

In the first two weeks of the year, Iran welcomed more delegations from Europe than in all of 2013.

“The Europeans are waiting in line to come here,” said Mr. Sheikholeslami, the international affairs adviser to the head of Iran’s Parliament, Ali Larijani, who has been receiving many of the high-profile visitors. “They are coming to seek benefits and to get ahead of their international rivals.”

Italy’s foreign minister, Emma Bonino, has been here, as has a former British foreign minister, Jack Straw, in his capacity as the head of the Iran-Britain Friendship Committee.

The prime ministers of Italy and Poland have also scheduled visits. Trade delegations from Ireland, Italy and France are expected in coming weeks.

American companies have shown some interest, of course. In September the head of President Hassan Rouhani’s office, the former director of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, Mohammad Nahavandian, held a closed-door meeting with leading chief executives in New York. In March, an Iranian investment company is organizing a $15,000-a-ticket seminar in New York on business opportunities in Iran.

President Obama and others who claim more sanctions can only mean war say the only path to peace runs through the diplomatic process and that it must be given more time to succeed. But the boomtown atmosphere in Tehran that has kept Sheikholeslami hopping is proof that the real choice is not between more sanctions and diplomacy. Without a law on the books that will mandate a complete economic embargo of Iran if the diplomats fail to produce a deal that ends the Iranian nuclear threat, Tehran can confidently assume it has nothing to lose from more delaying tactics and a refusal to give up its nuclear dreams.

The administration has also further undermined its own leverage with Iran by demonstrating its eagerness to cooperate with Tehran on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. That rightly scares American allies in the region and gives the impression that President Obama is more interested in fostering détente with Iran than in making good on his campaign promises to force it to give up its nuclear program. With “open for business” signs going up in Tehran as European delegations arrive to renew ties, rather than denouncing the sanctions bill, the administration should be embracing it as its last best hope to convince the Iranians that they have no other option but to negotiate the surrender of their nuclear project.

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Iran Sanctions Foes’ Dishonest Arguments

It’s been a bad week for those trying to stop the Senate from passing tougher sanctions on Iran. After two months of dithering the Obama administration finalized the nuclear deal signed with Iran in November. That should have helped the president to orchestrate greater opposition to the push for more sanctions he opposes. But instead, the Iranians used the completion of the interim deal to celebrate what they say is a great victory over the West for the regime that confirms their right to continue enriching uranium and pursuing their nuclear goal regardless of what any agreement says. That gave the lie to the administration’s claims that the negotiations are succeeding in heading off the nuclear threat. It also strengthened arguments by sanctions proponents that putting more such restrictions in place to be implemented should the talks fail was both prudent and the best way to ensure that diplomacy has a chance to succeed.

But rather respond to Iran’s provocations, both the administration and its allies in Congress and the media have doubled down on their illogical claim that passing more sanctions now is tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran. While it is discouraging to hear this canard voiced by White House functionaries, it is even worse to hear it from those who claim to share the goal of preventing Tehran from getting a bomb. That’s essentially the position that Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg has taken in his latest column. While it is disappointing to see a man considered one of the most astute observers of the Middle East taking such a blatantly disingenuous position on an issue on which he had previously staked out a strong position, it looks as if in this case his attachment to President Obama and his loathing for the administration’s critics outweighs common sense and his ability to offer a clear-eyed evaluation of the situation.

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It’s been a bad week for those trying to stop the Senate from passing tougher sanctions on Iran. After two months of dithering the Obama administration finalized the nuclear deal signed with Iran in November. That should have helped the president to orchestrate greater opposition to the push for more sanctions he opposes. But instead, the Iranians used the completion of the interim deal to celebrate what they say is a great victory over the West for the regime that confirms their right to continue enriching uranium and pursuing their nuclear goal regardless of what any agreement says. That gave the lie to the administration’s claims that the negotiations are succeeding in heading off the nuclear threat. It also strengthened arguments by sanctions proponents that putting more such restrictions in place to be implemented should the talks fail was both prudent and the best way to ensure that diplomacy has a chance to succeed.

But rather respond to Iran’s provocations, both the administration and its allies in Congress and the media have doubled down on their illogical claim that passing more sanctions now is tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran. While it is discouraging to hear this canard voiced by White House functionaries, it is even worse to hear it from those who claim to share the goal of preventing Tehran from getting a bomb. That’s essentially the position that Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg has taken in his latest column. While it is disappointing to see a man considered one of the most astute observers of the Middle East taking such a blatantly disingenuous position on an issue on which he had previously staked out a strong position, it looks as if in this case his attachment to President Obama and his loathing for the administration’s critics outweighs common sense and his ability to offer a clear-eyed evaluation of the situation.

Throughout the last five years, Goldberg has been an ardent supporter of the president even while frequently expressing impatience and concern over his approach to Iran. Though no fan of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Goldberg has treated the concerns of Israel and the pro-Israel community in this country on the Iranian nuclear threat as serious and credible. He rightly refers to Iran as a despotic state sponsor of terror and believes its possession of a nuclear weapon would undermine U.S. security and that of its Arab allies as well as pose an existential threat to Israel. He understands that Iran has deceived the West in negotiations before and can’t be trusted today. He has been a proponent of tough sanctions and hard-headed diplomacy on Iran and has publicly vouched for the president’s bona fides on the issue, going so far as to be among the very few who believe that if push came to shove, Obama would order the use of force against Tehran in order to forestall its drive for a nuclear weapon.

But though he still calls himself an “Iran hawk” (a term that few, if any, other commentators on the subject have adopted), Goldberg has now officially drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on the topic and says the deal struck in Geneva in November is the best the West can hope for. Rather than call, as he did in the past, for an end to Iran’s nuclear program, he’s veiled his former hawkishness, saying he is willing to settle for a deal that will “substantially denuclearize” the regime, a weasel-worded expression vague enough to encompass an agreement that would, as Iran demands, leave its nuclear infrastructure in place and the threat to Israel and its Arab neighbors undiminished.

While claiming to be a skeptic on the upcoming talks, he accepts the argument that any congressional move to strengthen the president’s hand in negotiations would provide the Iranians an excuse to end the negotiations. Given that Iran was brought to the table by sanctions (that were consistently opposed by the administration) this makes no sense, especially since the Iranians have so much to gain by talks that have already brought them considerable sanctions relief. By loosening the sanctions while acknowledging the Iranian right to uranium enrichment during the interim deal, the U.S. appears willing to give up much of the economic and military leverage it held over Iran. But now both the president and his supporters like Goldberg are prepared to treat Iranian bluster as an imperative that America dare not contravene. The illogical argument that the time isn’t right for more sanctions accepts this Iranian dictate in a way that undermines any hope the West can achieve the dismantling of Iran’s facilities and the export and/or destruction of all its nuclear material. The process now seems to be one in which it is the West that is the supplicant and the ayatollahs the masters of the situation.

The Iranians don’t like the idea that if the current negotiations fail they will be subjected to a new round of sanctions that would end the lucrative oil trade that is keeping the regime afloat while funding their nuclear program, terrorism, and their intervention in Syria. But without that threat, their improving economy and the prospect that Russia is prepared to engage in an oil-for-goods swap that will make a mockery of the sanctions means Iran will have no reason to treat the president’s threats of future action seriously.

This is the key point in the argument to increase sanctions that Goldberg and other administration supporters consistently mischaracterize.

Like Obama, Goldberg poses this debate as an entirely specious choice between supporters of diplomacy and those who want to fight a war against Iran. This is false. No one in Congress wants war. Neither does Israel or its friends. Nor does anyone (except perhaps for Goldberg in his least credible columns) think Obama or Congress would ever authorize a strike on Iran. To claim that is the goal of sanctions advocates is a blatant lie. To the contrary, those pushing for more sanctions understand all too well that a genuine economic embargo of Iran, rather than the leaky restrictions currently in place, is the only option that has any chance of bringing the Islamist regime to its senses by methods short of war.

The alternative to tougher sanctions isn’t the war Goldberg claims sanctions proponents want; it’s appeasement that will inevitably result in a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran that Obama says he opposes.

There’s a reason that sanctions proponents don’t trust the president to conduct diplomacy without first committing the U.S. to taking the next step toward isolating Iran once the next round of talks fail (a proposition that even Goldberg concedes is a 50-50 proposition). Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez and other sponsors of the bill remember all too well that the current sanctions about which the president boasts were watered down and then fought tooth and nail by the administration. The administration has consistently sought engagement with Iran even when it meant ignoring the regime’s bloody repression of dissidents and its drive for regional hegemony in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and the annihilation of Israel. Now it appears all too willing to turn engagement into détente and a common agenda that will allow the U.S. to substantially withdraw from the region and thereby place its allies in peril.

The idea that more sanctions now would turn the tyrants of Tehran into victims of American provocations is ridiculous. So is the claim that preventing them will allow diplomacy to work to make Iran give up what they clearly wish to retain. More sanctions may not “denuclearize” Iran, but their passage offers the only hope that this goal can be achieved by diplomacy. The only way to justify opposition to them is to demonize both administration supporters (like Menendez, Chuck Schumer, and the many other Democrats who support additional sanctions) and opponents who want to ensure that the president keeps his promises about Iran. That’s a canard that the Jeffrey Goldberg, who was a supportive but tough critic of Obama on Iran throughout his first term, would never have sunk to. But sadly, such despicable smears are all he and other administration loyalists have left. 

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The White House Iran War Canard

The Obama administration has been playing hardball in its attempt to stop the Senate from adopting a new and tougher sanctions law aimed at Iran, but it has now gone too far even for one of its leading congressional loyalists. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the minority whip in the House of Representatives cried foul over a statement by the spokesperson for the National Security Council that accused sanctions supporters of pushing for war. But Hoyer’s call for Bernadette Meehan to retract her comments is a little unfair to the NSC staffer. Meehan was doing nothing more than articulating the same slander that has been put into circulation by a variety of administration sources and their press cheerleaders when she said the following in response to questions about the growing congressional support for sanctions:

If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be upfront with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.

This is a straw argument if there ever was one. The argument against sanctions is utterly illogical since the only possible path to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat that President Obama has vowed to thwart is via the pressure of tough economic restrictions. By loosening the sanctions in the interim nuclear deal signed in November, Secretary of State John Kerry lost some of that leverage. But by staging an all-out effort to stop a bill that would not go into effect until after the current process is seen to have failed, the administration is taking Iranian threats about ditching the negotiations so seriously that it has, in effect, become Tehran’s hostage. The problem here is not just about over-the-top-rhetoric or competing strategies. As many in Congress are beginning to suspect, the effort to brand all those calling for more pressure on Iran as war-mongers only makes sense in the context of a foreign-policy shift in which the president will seek to weasel out of his commitment to force Tehran to give up its nuclear dream.

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The Obama administration has been playing hardball in its attempt to stop the Senate from adopting a new and tougher sanctions law aimed at Iran, but it has now gone too far even for one of its leading congressional loyalists. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the minority whip in the House of Representatives cried foul over a statement by the spokesperson for the National Security Council that accused sanctions supporters of pushing for war. But Hoyer’s call for Bernadette Meehan to retract her comments is a little unfair to the NSC staffer. Meehan was doing nothing more than articulating the same slander that has been put into circulation by a variety of administration sources and their press cheerleaders when she said the following in response to questions about the growing congressional support for sanctions:

If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be upfront with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it’s not clear why any member of Congress would support a bill that possibly closes the door on diplomacy and makes it more likely that the United States will have to choose between military options or allowing Iran’s nuclear program to proceed.

This is a straw argument if there ever was one. The argument against sanctions is utterly illogical since the only possible path to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat that President Obama has vowed to thwart is via the pressure of tough economic restrictions. By loosening the sanctions in the interim nuclear deal signed in November, Secretary of State John Kerry lost some of that leverage. But by staging an all-out effort to stop a bill that would not go into effect until after the current process is seen to have failed, the administration is taking Iranian threats about ditching the negotiations so seriously that it has, in effect, become Tehran’s hostage. The problem here is not just about over-the-top-rhetoric or competing strategies. As many in Congress are beginning to suspect, the effort to brand all those calling for more pressure on Iran as war-mongers only makes sense in the context of a foreign-policy shift in which the president will seek to weasel out of his commitment to force Tehran to give up its nuclear dream.

If the president is serious about keeping his numerous campaign pledges to force Iran to give up its nuclear program, then it is obvious that more pressure is needed to convince its leaders that the U.S. means business. As I discussed yesterday, the triumphalist rhetoric emanating from Iran, including its President Hassan Rouhani, about the interim nuclear deal being a victory for the Islamists isn’t just an embarrassment for the president. That the man the administration has claimed is a moderate who represents a real chance for change in Iran is mocking the president in this manner ought to have set off alarms in the White House, despite yesterday’s attempt by spokesman Jay Carney to downplay it.

The Iranians are making no secret of the fact that they believe Obama is more concerned about achieving a new détente with them than he is in shutting down their nuclear facilities. Given the fact that the deal Kerry signed in Geneva tacitly recognizes Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium while also weakening sanctions it’s hard to argue with that conclusion. The ayatollahs believe they have the whip hand in the next round of talks with the West that begin soon, and the administration’s slavish devotion to the notion that any further sanctions would “break faith” with their new partners in Tehran lends credence to that conclusion. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to imagine that the talks can possibly produce a new deal that will permanently shut down the Iranian centrifuges or dismantle their nuclear facilities. Only a dramatic toughening of sanctions that would put a damper on a reviving Iranian economy by a total embargo of the sale of oil would give the P5+1 negotiators any hope in their quest to persuade Tehran to finally give in.

Since the administration is determined not to put that arrow in its quiver, it’s fair to ask what U.S. diplomats think they can possibly achieve through further negotiations. Without more sanctions, the U.S. will be faced with only two options: the use of force or acceptance of Iran as a nuclear power. Since neither the president nor Congress has any appetite for a conflict with Iran, without more sanctions, containment of a nuclear Iran seems the only likely result despite the president’s promises not to accept such an outcome.

But the only way to pave the way for Congress and the American people to accept a policy that would pose a threat to U.S. security as well as endanger allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia is to convince them that anyone who cares about the issue is a warmonger. Seen in that light, Meehan’s war canard isn’t a gaffe. It’s a vital element in a clear administration strategy aimed at delegitimizing opponents of the appeasement oft. 

The choice facing the country on Iran isn’t between diplomacy and war but between a congressional majority that is intent on giving the diplomats the only tools that will help them succeed and an administration that is determined to prevent that from happening. Rather than criticizing Meehan, pro-Israel Democrats like Hoyer and other members of the Democratic caucus that lament the noxious nature of this administration tactic must understand that what is at stake here is nothing less than the entire direction of U.S. foreign policy. If a rush to détente with the Islamist regime and an acceptance of Iranian nukes is to be stopped, it will require a full-scale Democratic mutiny against an administration that seems determined to keep faith with Iran while breaking its word both to its allies and the American people.

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Rouhani Spikes the Ball in Obama’s Face

President Obama and his allies are working overtime this week to lobby the Senate against passage of a new round of tough sanctions on Iran. The conceit of his campaign to persuade Congress not to give him more leverage over Tehran is that even the threat of further economic pressure on the regime would cause it to scuttle more nuclear talks. According to the administration, any further sanctions would “break faith” with a country that Obama wants to do business with on the nuclear question as well as on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

But while the president is bending over backward trying to avoid giving offense to his diplomatic dance partners, the Iranians have a very different mindset. Rather than displaying the skittish fear of blowing up the talks the president is displaying, the Iranians are spending the days after the finalization of the interim deal signed in November spiking the football in Obama’s face. That’s the only way to interpret the tweet put out this morning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the so-called moderate whose victory in a faux election last summer was seen by the administration as a sign Iran was changing for the better, in which he said:

Our relationship with the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.

While such gloating is unseemly even for a functionary of a tyrannical regime, given the terms of the deal and the publicly stated fears of the president that Iran might flee the talks if the Senate did anything to offend them, it’s hard to argue with Rouhani’s assessment of the situation. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have represented the nuclear deal as a victory for the West since it supposedly hits the pause button on the Iranian program while maintaining almost all of the economic sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place. But the Iranians, buoyed by a resurgent economy, have a very different perspective on the accord. The willingness of Iran’s leaders—both the so-called “moderates” and their “hard-line” opponents—to characterize the agreement as a triumph for Iran’s foreign-policy goals as well as its nuclear ambition makes the administration’s fear of offending them look ridiculous, not to mention downright craven.

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President Obama and his allies are working overtime this week to lobby the Senate against passage of a new round of tough sanctions on Iran. The conceit of his campaign to persuade Congress not to give him more leverage over Tehran is that even the threat of further economic pressure on the regime would cause it to scuttle more nuclear talks. According to the administration, any further sanctions would “break faith” with a country that Obama wants to do business with on the nuclear question as well as on the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

But while the president is bending over backward trying to avoid giving offense to his diplomatic dance partners, the Iranians have a very different mindset. Rather than displaying the skittish fear of blowing up the talks the president is displaying, the Iranians are spending the days after the finalization of the interim deal signed in November spiking the football in Obama’s face. That’s the only way to interpret the tweet put out this morning by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the so-called moderate whose victory in a faux election last summer was seen by the administration as a sign Iran was changing for the better, in which he said:

Our relationship with the world is based on Iranian nation’s interests. In #Geneva agreement world powers surrendered to Iranian nation’s will.

While such gloating is unseemly even for a functionary of a tyrannical regime, given the terms of the deal and the publicly stated fears of the president that Iran might flee the talks if the Senate did anything to offend them, it’s hard to argue with Rouhani’s assessment of the situation. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have represented the nuclear deal as a victory for the West since it supposedly hits the pause button on the Iranian program while maintaining almost all of the economic sanctions that brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place. But the Iranians, buoyed by a resurgent economy, have a very different perspective on the accord. The willingness of Iran’s leaders—both the so-called “moderates” and their “hard-line” opponents—to characterize the agreement as a triumph for Iran’s foreign-policy goals as well as its nuclear ambition makes the administration’s fear of offending them look ridiculous, not to mention downright craven.

 As the New York Times reports, the “hardliners” who are reportedly working to undermine Rouhani are actually quite pleased with what their country’s negotiators achieved in Geneva. Conservative clerics in Iran’s parliament are acknowledging that the deal sanctioned Iran’s continuing enrichment of uranium, thereby upending years of United Nations resolutions attempting to stop the practice. They also know that, despite the downplaying of these gifts by Kerry, their country received significant relief from sanctions that will make it far easier for the regime to continuing selling oil. That will keep their government afloat as well as finance Iran’s nuclear project, its interventions in Syria and Iraq, and its support of international terrorism.

What’s more, far from displaying any worry about the U.S. withdrawing these benefits, Iran’s leaders also seem to think now is a good time to rub the Americans’ faces in their disgrace. Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohamad Javid Zarif, who was shaking hands with Kerry in Geneva in November, yesterday took time out to lay a wreath at the grave of the man who planned the terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 as well as other crimes against Americans. As Tower.org reported, Zarif paid homage to Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh in Lebanon yesterday, making clear that the new moderate government maintains the same policy priorities as the hardliners.

Of course, the revelation that the secret diplomatic back-channel talks that led to the November deal began before Rouhani’s election last summer gave the lie to the notion that the renewed talks were the result of changes on Iran’s part rather than Obama’s decision to give Tehran what it wanted. But as Elliott Abrams noted today at Pressure Points, the juxtaposition between the administration’s weakness and Iran’s chutzpah bodes ill for the next round of nuclear talks.

The Iranians have always acted as if they thought Obama was a weakling, but their brazen behavior this week demonstrates again that they think there is nothing they can do or say that could possibly provoke a reaction from Washington. While the president pulls out all the stops to prevent even the threat of future sanctions—the proposal being considered by the Senate would not go into effect until after the next round of talks fails—the Iranians are showing they will agree to nothing that will thwart their nuclear ambitions and think Obama won’t lift a finger to stop them.

Rather than bolstering the president’s effort to stop the sanctions bill, Rouhani’s tweet, Zarif’s photo op, and the general applause for the deal being sounded by Iran’s theocrats should convince the Senate to pass the sanctions bill. While Iran is unlikely to halt its  nuclear program under any circumstances, any slim hope of diplomatic success rests on a credible threat of U.S. pressure on the regime. Far from sparking conflict, the sanctions bill may be the only hope Washington has of influencing the Iranians to turn back before it’s too late.

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Inspections? Kerry’s False Iran Promises

When Secretary of State John Kerry defended the deal he signed with Iran on November 24, he was particularly exasperated with the arguments that asserted that Iran would cheat on its promises to “hit the pause button” on its nuclear program. He said the deal was not only a vital first step in the administration’s efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but that any fears about Tehran deceiving the West were absurd. Kerry promised its facilities would be subjected to rigorous inspections that exceeded anything that had hitherto been imposed on the country. After nearly two months of further wrangling, that interim accord was finalized yesterday and Iran is now to enjoy substantial sanctions relief during a six-month negotiating period that will give it plenty of opportunities to continue its stalling tactics. But amid the orgy of self-congratulation from the administration on its successful effort to avoid taking tougher action against the nuclear threat, we are also learning more about the inspections Kerry bragged about, and these details give the lie to his assurances.

As the New York Times reports, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with carrying out the inspections, is glad that the deal will expand its ability to monitor some of Iran’s facilities. But, like the deal itself, the inspections regime turns out to be nothing more than what one nuclear inspector described to the Times as “an appetizer.” While the inspectors will be able to look in on the centrifuges that continue to enrich uranium–a “right” tacitly acknowledged by the West in the deal–it says nothing about the regime’s military research that is necessary for it to complete a bomb. Without such inspections, the notion that the West has any real idea about how close the Iranians are to a bomb is a joke. Far from making it harder for them to achieve their nuclear ambition, the interim accord is, like previous negotiations, enabling the Iranians to go on pursuing it.

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When Secretary of State John Kerry defended the deal he signed with Iran on November 24, he was particularly exasperated with the arguments that asserted that Iran would cheat on its promises to “hit the pause button” on its nuclear program. He said the deal was not only a vital first step in the administration’s efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon but that any fears about Tehran deceiving the West were absurd. Kerry promised its facilities would be subjected to rigorous inspections that exceeded anything that had hitherto been imposed on the country. After nearly two months of further wrangling, that interim accord was finalized yesterday and Iran is now to enjoy substantial sanctions relief during a six-month negotiating period that will give it plenty of opportunities to continue its stalling tactics. But amid the orgy of self-congratulation from the administration on its successful effort to avoid taking tougher action against the nuclear threat, we are also learning more about the inspections Kerry bragged about, and these details give the lie to his assurances.

As the New York Times reports, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is tasked with carrying out the inspections, is glad that the deal will expand its ability to monitor some of Iran’s facilities. But, like the deal itself, the inspections regime turns out to be nothing more than what one nuclear inspector described to the Times as “an appetizer.” While the inspectors will be able to look in on the centrifuges that continue to enrich uranium–a “right” tacitly acknowledged by the West in the deal–it says nothing about the regime’s military research that is necessary for it to complete a bomb. Without such inspections, the notion that the West has any real idea about how close the Iranians are to a bomb is a joke. Far from making it harder for them to achieve their nuclear ambition, the interim accord is, like previous negotiations, enabling the Iranians to go on pursuing it.

The Geneva deal does allow the IAEA to make daily visits to Iran’s enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordow, an increase over what had previously been allowed. That will permit the West to see if the regime is exceeding the level of enrichment it has been permitted. But even if Iran keeps its word and doesn’t enrich above a level of five percent, all that will achieve is a delay in the period needed for a “breakout” that would get them a bomb. The low-level enriched uranium they are now producing as well as the stockpile they have already acquired can always be converted to weapons-grade material.

But Kerry and other Western leaders already know this. What they and the IAEA don’t know is how far the Iranian bomb research has progressed, and they can only learn this by the kind of inspections that the interim deal won’t provide. As the Times reports:

The agreement between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia – meant to buy time for talks on a final settlement of the decade-old nuclear dispute – only vaguely refers to the IAEA’s investigation.

It does not, for example, say anything about the U.N. agency’s repeated requests to visit the Parchin military base.

The IAEA suspects that Iran has carried out explosives tests relevant for nuclear bomb development at the facility southeast of Tehran, possibly a decade ago. Iran denies this and has so far refused to open it up for the inspectors.

The watchdog also wants to see other locations, interview officials and study relevant documents for its inquiry into what it calls the “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program, known under the acronym PMD.

In other words, Kerry and the rest of the P5+1 group about to resume their diplomatic dance with the Iranians have done nothing to effectively curb research on a bomb even as their enrichment deal does just as little to stop Tehran from stockpiling more nuclear fuel.

The sanctions relief the Iranians are getting during the six-month interim period that, thanks to the delay, actually became an eight-month respite are by no means trivial. While much of the coverage of this aspect of the deal spoke only of the release of frozen assets by the West in the amount of a few billion dollars, the U.S. is also relaxing its efforts to curb Iran’s sale of oil to its remaining customers, a lucrative trade that continues to keep the despotic regime fiscally solvent. The European Union also is suspending some of its sanctions on oil and other exports. While the bulk of the sanctions remain in place, now that the restrictions are starting to unravel there is little likelihood that they can be re-imposed in an atmosphere in which the administration seems bent on pursuing détente with Iran rather than pressure.

Kerry will get the time he wanted to negotiate another nuclear deal with Iran, and thanks to the president’s veto threats and the machinations of Majority Leader Harry Reid that Seth wrote about here earlier, there seems little chance that Congress will be able to heighten the pressure with new sanctions that would not go into effect until after diplomacy fails. But given the lack of inspections on Parchin as well as the Iranians’ track record in pulling the rug over the eyes of credulous Westerners like Kerry, that failure is only a matter of time.

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Time for Honesty from Obama on Iran

How far are Democrats willing to go to squelch efforts to put a chill on the administration’s headlong rush to embrace Iran? We got a taste of just how important the effort to prevent the enactment of tougher sanctions on Iran is to the president this week when he assigned his Jewish surrogates the job of smearing mainstream Jewish groups that have been lobbying for the bill.

As JTA reports, Rabbi Jack Moline, the head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, slammed both AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee for engaging in what he called “strong-arm tactics, essentially threatening people that if they don’t vote a particular way, that somehow that makes them anti-Israel or means the abandonment of the Jewish community.” That was enough to prompt David Harris, the head of the liberal-leaning AJC to wonder what exactly Moline was up to by engaging in that kind of invective on the issue:

“We support the Iran sanctions bill, as do a bipartisan majority of U.S. senators,” he said. “Can a group differ with him on a critically important issue like Iran, where potentially existential issues are at stake, without being maligned or misrepresented, or is that the price we’re supposed to pay for honest disagreement?”

Yes, that is exactly the price. Especially when the stakes involve anything that would potentially upset the administration’s effort to create a new détente with Iran. Though it is highly unlikely that proponents of the measure have enough votes to override a threatened presidential veto, the administration is not only doing its utmost to spike the effort, it is calling out the dogs in yet another attempt to intimidate those determined to speak out in favor of stricter sanctions.

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How far are Democrats willing to go to squelch efforts to put a chill on the administration’s headlong rush to embrace Iran? We got a taste of just how important the effort to prevent the enactment of tougher sanctions on Iran is to the president this week when he assigned his Jewish surrogates the job of smearing mainstream Jewish groups that have been lobbying for the bill.

As JTA reports, Rabbi Jack Moline, the head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, slammed both AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee for engaging in what he called “strong-arm tactics, essentially threatening people that if they don’t vote a particular way, that somehow that makes them anti-Israel or means the abandonment of the Jewish community.” That was enough to prompt David Harris, the head of the liberal-leaning AJC to wonder what exactly Moline was up to by engaging in that kind of invective on the issue:

“We support the Iran sanctions bill, as do a bipartisan majority of U.S. senators,” he said. “Can a group differ with him on a critically important issue like Iran, where potentially existential issues are at stake, without being maligned or misrepresented, or is that the price we’re supposed to pay for honest disagreement?”

Yes, that is exactly the price. Especially when the stakes involve anything that would potentially upset the administration’s effort to create a new détente with Iran. Though it is highly unlikely that proponents of the measure have enough votes to override a threatened presidential veto, the administration is not only doing its utmost to spike the effort, it is calling out the dogs in yet another attempt to intimidate those determined to speak out in favor of stricter sanctions.

The NJDC’s stand is particularly discreditable since the group is trying to have it both ways on the issue. As JTA notes:

The National Jewish Democratic Council, in an effort to back a Democratic president while not expressly opposing intensified sanctions, issued a mixed verdict on the bill, saying it does not support its passage at present though the option of intensified sanctions should remain open down the road if the president seeks it.

This is utterly disingenuous since the sanctions bill wouldn’t go into effect until the interim nuclear deal signed in November runs its full course, during which the Iranians will have six months to negotiate another agreement with the West and during which they will be able to continue refining uranium. Passage of the legislation will only strengthen President Obama’s hand in his dealings with Tehran and will underscore the point that he and Secretary of State John Kerry have continually made about the Geneva accord not fundamentally weakening the economic restrictions that brought the Islamist regime to the table in the first place.

However, the context of this dispute isn’t merely a spat among Jewish groups. The administration’s position on Iran has fundamentally shifted in the last several months during which secret talks with representatives of the ayatollahs were conducted. As articles in publications like the New York Times have made clear, Washington now regards Iran as a useful partner in Syria (where Tehran has ensured the survival of its ally Bashar Assad) and in Iraq. The move to step back from confrontation with Iran over its nuclear quest predated the election of faux moderate Hassan Rouhani last summer, but it has now reached the point where the White House considers any move to put more pressure on the regime as a threat to the hopes for better relations with the ayatollahs.

Just as chief White House flack Jay Carney has falsely implied that support for more sanctions is tantamount to a desire for war with Iran, Moline seems to be reading from the same playbook when he claims Jewish groups that won’t keep quiet are misbehaving. Far from stepping out of line, AIPAC and the AJC are reminding members of Congress that they can’t have it both ways. If they are sincere about their campaign pledges to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons they can’t also refuse to back more sanctions. The same point applies to the president since the position that the sanctions are not only unnecessary but a hindrance to diplomacy is illogical.

It should be remembered that this administration opposed the current sanctions regime they claim is sufficient for their purposes. But while those who back the new bill hope diplomacy succeeds, they rightly understand that nothing short of a complete shutdown of all business with Tehran, including the embargo of Iranian oil, will be enough to convince the regime that it must abandon its nuclear dream. Having already sanctioned Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, there seems little chance that the current diplomatic track will succeed in shutting down the centrifuges or the dismantling of its nuclear infrastructure.

Contrary to the White House spin, Iran is already showing signs that it is shaking off the problems created by the existing sanctions. As Mark Dubowitz and Rachel Ziemba wrote in a piece published by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the improvement in the Iranian economy—a trend that may be rooted in a belief that the sanctions will soon be lifted—is weakening the West’s leverage over Tehran at the very moment when the president needs it the most in order to get a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff with Iran.

As such, the enactment of new tougher sanctions could help convince Tehran that its efforts to stall the West on the nuclear issue will fail. But the president seems more afraid of “breaking faith” with a terror-supporting, anti-Semitic regime that remains a potent strategic threat to America’s Middle East allies than he is of appearing too solicitous of the feelings of the ayatollahs.

But the administration is still nervous about appearing to have openly abandoned efforts to isolate Iran. That’s why the White House is hoping the president’s veto threats as well as the attacks on sanctions supporters by attack dogs like Moline will prevent him from having to veto a measure that bolsters his stated policy aims.

Supporters of sanctions shouldn’t be intimidated by innuendo from either Carney or Moline. It is time for the administration to be honest with the American people about its Iran policy. If it is serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear threat, it should stop opposing the new bill. If not, the administration should end its prevarications and make a straightforward, public case for détente with the tyrants of Tehran—if they dare.

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Schumer’s Iran Sanctions Test

Is there hope for passage of new sanctions on Iran? If there is, it will be thanks to New York Senator Charles Schumer, who is defying President Obama and other members of the Senate Democratic leadership by supporting the bill proposed by fellow Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk. Schumer spoke up for the bill on Meet the Press on Sunday with some blunt talk about Iran:

Well, look, there are many of us, Democrats and Republicans, in this Senate who believe the best way to avoid war and get around to give up nuclear weapons is by ratcheting up sanctions, not by reducing them. The Iranians didn’t come to the table out of the goodness of their heart. This administration still labels them a terrorist organization–the supreme leader Khomeini is still pulling the strings. And only tough sanctions will get them to give up. Now, look, I give the president credit for talking. I don’t agree with some on the hard line who say no talking until they give up everything. But the bottom line is very simple. It’s pretty logical that it’s sanctions, tough sanctions that brought them to the table. If they think they can ease up on the sanctions without getting rid of their nuclear capabilities, they’re– they’re going to do that. So we have to be tough. And the legislation we put in says to the Iranians, if you don’t come to an agreement after six months and the president can extend it to a year, the sanctions are going to toughen up. … I think that will make them negotiate better and give up more.

The stand has earned Schumer fulsome praise from supporters of Israel as well as those in the media who are reading from the foreign-policy establishment’s appeasement hymnal on the subject. The New York Daily News rewarded Schumer with an editorial titled “Hang Tough Chuck” in which they rightly lauded such “stout-hearted Democrats” for “defying” President Obama. I agree with both Schumer and the News but those pinning their hopes for the sanctions bill on Schumer’s intrepid stand may wind up disappointed. If Schumer is serious about really standing up to the president the bill may have a chance to pass and set up a dramatic confrontation with the president that could influence the outcome of the negotiations with Iran. But it’s also entirely possible that he is counting on the president’s veto threat and the opposition to the proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Banking Committee chair Tim Johnson and other leading Democrats to save him from any real danger of a serious battle with Obama.

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Is there hope for passage of new sanctions on Iran? If there is, it will be thanks to New York Senator Charles Schumer, who is defying President Obama and other members of the Senate Democratic leadership by supporting the bill proposed by fellow Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican Mark Kirk. Schumer spoke up for the bill on Meet the Press on Sunday with some blunt talk about Iran:

Well, look, there are many of us, Democrats and Republicans, in this Senate who believe the best way to avoid war and get around to give up nuclear weapons is by ratcheting up sanctions, not by reducing them. The Iranians didn’t come to the table out of the goodness of their heart. This administration still labels them a terrorist organization–the supreme leader Khomeini is still pulling the strings. And only tough sanctions will get them to give up. Now, look, I give the president credit for talking. I don’t agree with some on the hard line who say no talking until they give up everything. But the bottom line is very simple. It’s pretty logical that it’s sanctions, tough sanctions that brought them to the table. If they think they can ease up on the sanctions without getting rid of their nuclear capabilities, they’re– they’re going to do that. So we have to be tough. And the legislation we put in says to the Iranians, if you don’t come to an agreement after six months and the president can extend it to a year, the sanctions are going to toughen up. … I think that will make them negotiate better and give up more.

The stand has earned Schumer fulsome praise from supporters of Israel as well as those in the media who are reading from the foreign-policy establishment’s appeasement hymnal on the subject. The New York Daily News rewarded Schumer with an editorial titled “Hang Tough Chuck” in which they rightly lauded such “stout-hearted Democrats” for “defying” President Obama. I agree with both Schumer and the News but those pinning their hopes for the sanctions bill on Schumer’s intrepid stand may wind up disappointed. If Schumer is serious about really standing up to the president the bill may have a chance to pass and set up a dramatic confrontation with the president that could influence the outcome of the negotiations with Iran. But it’s also entirely possible that he is counting on the president’s veto threat and the opposition to the proposal from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Banking Committee chair Tim Johnson and other leading Democrats to save him from any real danger of a serious battle with Obama.

Let’s first state that Schumer’s willingness to at least speak up on the need for more Iran sanctions is a valuable contribution to the debate on the issue. He’s entirely right that a new bill with tougher measures would actually strengthen the president’s hand in negotiations with Iran. If the administration really wants to hold Tehran’s feet to the fire, the bill would, along with the existing sanctions and the considerable military and economic leverage the West holds over the Islamist regime, be more than enough to force them to give up their nuclear ambitions. The fact that the president is so angry about the prospect of putting more pressure on Iran during talks that Tehran’s envoys are already stalling is highly suspicious. The anxiety in the White House and the State Department about even raising the question of Iran’s missile programs, support for terror, and its demonizing of Israel raises the question that Washington’s intent may be to promote détente with Iran rather than to bring it line.

But our applause for Schumer’s stand needs to be tempered by the knowledge that his statements may be more for show than substance. So long as Reid and Johnson are backing Obama’s play on Iran, the odds are against getting a vote on the Menendez-Kirk bill. And if Obama is really determined to veto it, it is highly unlikely that there are 67 votes available for an override in the Senate (though there may well be a two-thirds majority for more sanctions in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives). Safe in the knowledge that the measure has no chance, all Schumer may be doing is a little grandstanding in order to shore up his reputation as a friend of Israel that was damaged by his support for Chuck Hagel last winter.

However, if Schumer were as determined as he would like us to believe on this issue, he could cause a great deal of trouble for the president. As the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Schumer could call in some markers from his colleagues and maybe even persuade Reid, who has strong ties to the pro-Israel community, to allow a vote that would force Obama to make good on his veto threat. Perhaps the president isn’t bluffing about the veto, but he would also be loath to defend the Iranians in this manner.

If Schumer does help put the president in the corner on Iran, he will have earned the praise he’s currently getting. But if not, his talk about on Iran will turn out to be just that. “Hanging tough” means more than saying something on Meet the Press.

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What Should the U.S. Ask from Iran?

The Obama administration’s decision to sign a deal with Iran has brought the differences between the U.S. and Israel on the issue of the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions out into the open. Much of the debate about the question has focused on the fears of the Israeli government and many Americans that an agreement that loosened sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium and while retaining its nuclear infrastructure will not halt Iran’s march to a weapon. Both countries have sought to minimize the argument by focusing on disagreements about negotiations or the proper timing and application of sanctions while still insisting that they share a common goal. But this may obscure a more fundamental disagreement about whether an Iran run by extremist clerics and still dedicated to spreading terror and achieving regional hegemony can be integrated into the international community.

That is the backdrop for the anger being expressed by the administration and its cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment at Israel’s criticisms of the Iran deal. As this analysis by Reuters explains, supporters of the administration’s policy believe the conditions being proposed by Israel about a final deal with Iran are intended to sabotage the diplomatic process. In this version of events, Reuters’ sources say Netanyahu’s attempt to get the West to force Iran not only to reduce its enrichment but also dismantle its nuclear plants, end its ballistic missile project, cease supporting terrorism and incitement against Israel, and commit to respecting human rights are “crazy maximalist demands.” In doing so, Netanyahu is seen as not only trying to derail the talks with Iran but also inciting Congress to forestall any effort to expand upon them to create a new détente between the ayatollah’s regime and the U.S. But rather than focusing solely on the administration’s frustration at Jerusalem’s efforts to slow down the administration’s rush to end the conflict, perhaps it might be a good time to ask what exactly the United States wants from Iran.

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The Obama administration’s decision to sign a deal with Iran has brought the differences between the U.S. and Israel on the issue of the Islamist regime’s nuclear ambitions out into the open. Much of the debate about the question has focused on the fears of the Israeli government and many Americans that an agreement that loosened sanctions while allowing Tehran to continue enriching uranium and while retaining its nuclear infrastructure will not halt Iran’s march to a weapon. Both countries have sought to minimize the argument by focusing on disagreements about negotiations or the proper timing and application of sanctions while still insisting that they share a common goal. But this may obscure a more fundamental disagreement about whether an Iran run by extremist clerics and still dedicated to spreading terror and achieving regional hegemony can be integrated into the international community.

That is the backdrop for the anger being expressed by the administration and its cheerleaders in the foreign-policy establishment at Israel’s criticisms of the Iran deal. As this analysis by Reuters explains, supporters of the administration’s policy believe the conditions being proposed by Israel about a final deal with Iran are intended to sabotage the diplomatic process. In this version of events, Reuters’ sources say Netanyahu’s attempt to get the West to force Iran not only to reduce its enrichment but also dismantle its nuclear plants, end its ballistic missile project, cease supporting terrorism and incitement against Israel, and commit to respecting human rights are “crazy maximalist demands.” In doing so, Netanyahu is seen as not only trying to derail the talks with Iran but also inciting Congress to forestall any effort to expand upon them to create a new détente between the ayatollah’s regime and the U.S. But rather than focusing solely on the administration’s frustration at Jerusalem’s efforts to slow down the administration’s rush to end the conflict, perhaps it might be a good time to ask what exactly the United States wants from Iran.

Dating back to his first presidential campaign, President Obama has been clear about his desire to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. There has never been any deviation from that goal in the rhetoric of the administration. But he has also been consistent in his desire not so much to strip the ayatollahs of their nuclear toys but to create a dialogue and an end to decades of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. Obama’s desire for engagement with Iran was no secret during the 2008 campaign and was given a prominent mention in his first inaugural address. During his five years in office, Obama’s efforts to achieve engagement have been as fruitless as those of his predecessors. But the Geneva accord has given new life to the effort.

The desire for more than a nuclear deal with Iran is the only logical explanation for the hysteria emanating from the White House at the prospect of Congress passing another round of sanctions. Since the proposal being pushed by a bipartisan coalition in the Senate would do nothing more than strengthen Obama’s leverage in the talks with Iran, his threat of a veto and talk about opposing anything that would “break faith” with a regime that has never acted or negotiated in good faith seems bizarre. But if the president’s real object is not the narrow goal of ending the Iranian nuclear threat, it makes sense.

The same question applies to the anger expressed in Washington and in European capitals at Israel’s attempt to remind the West that uranium enrichment isn’t the only aspect of Iranian policy of concern.

First of all, it should be remembered that Netanyahu’s effort to get the West to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear project isn’t a new demand invented by Israel to stop the talks. It reflects President Obama’s explicit promises about the nuclear threat including this passage from his October 22, 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney:

So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.

As the president rightly indicated at that time, anything short of that would pave the way for a bomb, especially given Iran’s history of promise-breaking and America’s experience of such deals with other scofflaws like North Korea.

Just as important, a tunnel vision-like focus on the nuclear issue that ignores Iran’s ballistic weapons program would be more than shortsighted. Iran may claim the goal of its missiles is a peaceful space program, but the Islamist regime is no more interested in space than it is in peaceful uses of nuclear energy. If anything, it would be “crazy” for the U.S. to ignore the missiles that could deliver potential Iranian weapons not only to Israel but also to Western targets.

Critics of Israel claim these are unrealistic demands, but that view reflects a defeatism about diplomacy that is unwarranted. With the military and economic leverage the U.S. possesses, there is no reason to think Iran can’t be compelled to give up its nukes or missiles.

That also applies to acknowledging  the fact that Iran is a state sponsor of terror as well as understanding that another Iranian goal is to extend its sphere of influence beyond its borders throughout the Middle East via allies like Bashar Assad, Hezbollah, and perhaps even Hamas. Nor should Iran’s demonization of Israel that Jerusalem has rightly termed “genocidal” be off the table. If Iran is really changing its stripes, a dubious assertion based on the victory of Hassan Rouhani in the country’s faux presidential election last summer, then surely it is not too much to ask that it change its tune about terror and end its incitement against Israel along with its nuclear project.

Rather than carping about Israel, these are exactly the questions that both the media and Congress should be asking about the direction of U.S. policy toward Iran in the wake of the Geneva deal. Were Iran as moderate as the U.S. hopes, its nuclear program would not be so troubling. The choice with Iran is not one between war and peace. Instead, it is whether the U.S. is prepared to make its peace with an aggressive nuclear Iran or a peaceful nation that is not a threat to its Arab neighbors as well as to Israel. If the administration isn’t prepared to ask Iran to change, then the result of any nuclear deal isn’t likely to make the region or the United States safer. Even assuming the doubtful proposition that the current diplomatic effort will actually stop Iran’s weapons program, a nuclear deal that leaves the ayatollah’s missiles, terror, and hate in place is an open invitation to future conflict, not peace or détente.

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Why the Iran Sanctions Fight Matters

President Obama knows he’s got a fight on his hands. The decision of 26 members of the Senate, including several prominent Democrats, to sponsor a bill that would toughen sanctions on Iran showed that skepticism about the administration’s Iran policy and the nuclear deal signed with Tehran last month is still strong on both sides of the aisle. But rather than merely counting on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doing his bidding and putting off consideration of the bill until sometime next year, the White House went further, issuing a rare formal threat of a veto of the proposed legislation. Not content with that, the administration also prodded ten Senate committee chairs to sign a letter indicating their opposition to more sanctions against Iran, including as journalist (and leading advocate of appeasement of Iran) Laura Rozen noted on Twitter, four Jewish senators.

Why are the president and his supporters so alarmed by the prospect of a new sanctions law? Given that even if the bill introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez and ranking Republican Mark Kirk were put into law it would not go into effect until after the six-month period the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have set aside for negotiating a final resolution of the nuclear dispute, it’s hard to understand their argument. Since the only thing that appeared to bring the Iranians to the table in the first place was sanctions, why would the threat of tightening the noose on Tehran’s lucrative oil business make diplomacy more difficult as the president and his backers claim? More pressure on Iran should be exactly what they should want so as to convince the ayatollahs that they have no choice but to give up their nuclear dreams lest the U.S. make their lives even more difficult.

The answer to this question isn’t merely one of seeking the best tactic to stop Iran, as the president’s Senate supporters claim. Rather, it goes to the heart of the administration’s entire approach to Iran. The fear of more sanctions seems to indicate the president’s goal isn’t so much making good on his repeated promises to stop Iran as to achieve a new détente with the Islamist regime. As such, the battle over the sanctions bill may not be simply a tactical dispute in which both sides agree on the goal but rather one about the future of American foreign policy.

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President Obama knows he’s got a fight on his hands. The decision of 26 members of the Senate, including several prominent Democrats, to sponsor a bill that would toughen sanctions on Iran showed that skepticism about the administration’s Iran policy and the nuclear deal signed with Tehran last month is still strong on both sides of the aisle. But rather than merely counting on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid doing his bidding and putting off consideration of the bill until sometime next year, the White House went further, issuing a rare formal threat of a veto of the proposed legislation. Not content with that, the administration also prodded ten Senate committee chairs to sign a letter indicating their opposition to more sanctions against Iran, including as journalist (and leading advocate of appeasement of Iran) Laura Rozen noted on Twitter, four Jewish senators.

Why are the president and his supporters so alarmed by the prospect of a new sanctions law? Given that even if the bill introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez and ranking Republican Mark Kirk were put into law it would not go into effect until after the six-month period the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have set aside for negotiating a final resolution of the nuclear dispute, it’s hard to understand their argument. Since the only thing that appeared to bring the Iranians to the table in the first place was sanctions, why would the threat of tightening the noose on Tehran’s lucrative oil business make diplomacy more difficult as the president and his backers claim? More pressure on Iran should be exactly what they should want so as to convince the ayatollahs that they have no choice but to give up their nuclear dreams lest the U.S. make their lives even more difficult.

The answer to this question isn’t merely one of seeking the best tactic to stop Iran, as the president’s Senate supporters claim. Rather, it goes to the heart of the administration’s entire approach to Iran. The fear of more sanctions seems to indicate the president’s goal isn’t so much making good on his repeated promises to stop Iran as to achieve a new détente with the Islamist regime. As such, the battle over the sanctions bill may not be simply a tactical dispute in which both sides agree on the goal but rather one about the future of American foreign policy.

The argument against the new sanctions bill is that any new legislation will be seen by the Iranians as evidence of the U.S. “breaking faith” with them and give them an excuse to end the negotiations. By speaking in this manner, the White House and Senate supporters aren’t just taking the Iranians at their word since regime figures have been making such threats ever since Secretary of State John Kerry signed a deal with them on November 24. They are acting, as the president and Kerry did throughout the negotiations, as if the U.S. is the suitor in these negotiations and that Tehran is the party with the whip hand.

If the goal of the talks is to use the formidable military and economic leverage of the United States over Iran to force it to finally comply with American demands and United Nations resolutions and cease its refinement of uranium and to give up (as the president explicitly said during his October 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney) its nuclear program, then it is hard to understand this line of thought. It is not just that it reflects an otherwise inexplicable defeatism about the dispute, but that it seems to indicate that the real objective is not the dismantling of Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure but something else.

Despite the lip service they have paid to the importance of sanctions, the administration’s stance indicates a belief that they do not–indeed, cannot–work to influence Iran’s decision-making. And since, contrary to some of their statements, this administration does not contemplate ever using force to stop Iran, what they intend here is not so much Iranian nuclear compliance as an accommodation that will somehow end U.S.-Iran tensions. Seen in that context, the last thing they want is to actually heighten the pressure on Iran, even if their current negotiations don’t get us closer to the goal of ending the nuclear threat.

Under these circumstances, one doesn’t have to use much imagination to see what they might be contemplating is a negotiating process that does not so much resolve the nuclear question as kick it down the road while further loosening sanctions so as to lower tensions between the two countries. The negotiations then become not so much a way of persuading Iran to give up its cherished nuclear dream as easing the way for Americans to come to terms with containing a nuclear Iran.

Administration supporters will dispute this and claim the president can still be counted on to keep his word on Iran. They believe the honey being offered by Kerry will do more to entice Iran to stop misbehaving than threats or sanctions. But in order to buy into this thesis, we have to forget everything we’ve learned about Iranian negotiating tactics and goals in the last 30 years.

This is, after all, an administration that actually opposed the existing sanctions that it now boasts have helped revive diplomacy. But what Obama and Kerry seem to be pushing for is a policy that values diplomacy for its own sake rather than as a means to stop a nuclear Iran.

Since the opposition of Reid and the threat of a veto is probably enough to stop more sanctions, we will probably have a chance to see whether Obama’s diplomatic strategy works. But if six, nine, or twelve months from now the West is still locked in dead-end talks while Tehran’s centrifuges continue to turn and bring Iran closer to a weapon, we may look back on what is being billed as a tactical dispute between some senators and the White House as the moment when the president’s abandonment of his promises on Iran first became obvious.

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Walkout: Iran Playing Obama Perfectly

Anyone who thinks Iran’s leaders aren’t cognizant of what’s going on in Washington got a reminder this weekend just how closely they follow the Obama administration’s political line. After weeks in which President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been communicating their fears about the Iranians breaking off talks if Congress has the temerity to pass new economic sanctions, Tehran decided to make the president’s point. On Thursday, in an effort to prove that they weren’t lying down for the Islamist regime, administration officials announced that it would expand the list of businesses and individuals being targeted for prosecution for doing business with Iran. Contrary to the headline of the New York Times article about the measure, this wasn’t a case of new sanctions but merely a belated effort to enforce existing laws that have often been evaded either by exemptions granted by the Treasury Department or a lack of interest on the part of the U.S. government. This was supposed to demonstrate to a skeptical Congress that Obama and Kerry weren’t fibbing about being serious about keeping sanctions in place.

But the Iranian response to this tepid plan wasn’t long in coming. As Voice of America reports, the Iranian delegation to the meeting being held in Vienna to work out the implementation of the nuclear deal reached last month in Geneva walked out of the talks to protest the American move:

Iran said on Friday a new U.S. measure targeting companies and individuals for supporting its nuclear program violated the spirit of the Geneva deal.

Let’s get this straight. While Obama and Kerry said passing new sanctions in order to be sure the Iranians give up their nuclear ambitions would “break faith” with their diplomatic partners, the Iranians are going even further. They are now saying that even enforcing the current sanctions is not in the spirit of the Geneva deal. And in a very real sense, they’re right.

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Anyone who thinks Iran’s leaders aren’t cognizant of what’s going on in Washington got a reminder this weekend just how closely they follow the Obama administration’s political line. After weeks in which President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have been communicating their fears about the Iranians breaking off talks if Congress has the temerity to pass new economic sanctions, Tehran decided to make the president’s point. On Thursday, in an effort to prove that they weren’t lying down for the Islamist regime, administration officials announced that it would expand the list of businesses and individuals being targeted for prosecution for doing business with Iran. Contrary to the headline of the New York Times article about the measure, this wasn’t a case of new sanctions but merely a belated effort to enforce existing laws that have often been evaded either by exemptions granted by the Treasury Department or a lack of interest on the part of the U.S. government. This was supposed to demonstrate to a skeptical Congress that Obama and Kerry weren’t fibbing about being serious about keeping sanctions in place.

But the Iranian response to this tepid plan wasn’t long in coming. As Voice of America reports, the Iranian delegation to the meeting being held in Vienna to work out the implementation of the nuclear deal reached last month in Geneva walked out of the talks to protest the American move:

Iran said on Friday a new U.S. measure targeting companies and individuals for supporting its nuclear program violated the spirit of the Geneva deal.

Let’s get this straight. While Obama and Kerry said passing new sanctions in order to be sure the Iranians give up their nuclear ambitions would “break faith” with their diplomatic partners, the Iranians are going even further. They are now saying that even enforcing the current sanctions is not in the spirit of the Geneva deal. And in a very real sense, they’re right.

After all, the spirit of Geneva is, contrary to administration spin, a total Western surrender of the demands they’ve been making on Iran for the last decade. For the first time, The U.S. has tacitly recognized Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium as well as given up on the notion that sanctions could ever force them to dismantle their nuclear infrastructure, which is likewise left in place with U.S. approval. In return for giving up virtually nothing other than a temporary freeze on higher-end refinement—a meaningless point since the centrifuges are still turning and their product could be converted to weapons grade fuel later—the Iranians have gotten the U.S. to ease sanctions for the first time.

They also know that during the months of the secret talks they’ve been holding with Obama’s representatives, the U.S. has eased up on enforcement of the tough sanctions that the administration opposed but now brags about. So it’s little wonder that they believe any effort toward enforcing the sanctions is against the rules.

Of course, as even the initial reports about the Iranian walkout acknowledge, Tehran will soon return to the table. Why not? Every time they sit down with Americans they win. But by sending this not-too-subtle warning they have also reinforced the president’s point about the Iranians running away from diplomacy at the least provocation. Rather than responding to this provocation by reminding the Iranians they are the ones who benefit from the Geneva deal, the U.S. and its European partners are predictably adopting a supine posture. They are clearly more worried about offending the Islamist tyrants than they are in making it clear that they mean business about stopping their nuclear project. While the Iranians made no bones about the fact that they had been ordered home, Western sources were trying to paper over the disruption and to pretend as if there was no problem.

No doubt, this incident will soon be forgotten as the Iranians eventually come back to the table more certain than ever that the Americans are easily pushed around. But members of Congress pondering whether to take the administration’s warnings about not offending the Iranians should take this to heart. Rather than accepting a state of affairs in which the Iranians get to dictate not only the terms of nuclear agreements but also whether U.S. laws will be enforced, the Senate should call the Iranians’ bluff. Passing the next generation of sanctions that will make it impossible for the Iranians to go on selling oil—even if enforcement would be put off until after the six months of talks—would be the perfect message to send to Tehran that the United States isn’t impressed by their histrionics.

Unfortunately, that won’t be the reaction of President Obama, who is still chasing a naive vision of détente with Iran rather than one in which he fulfills his repeated promise of stopping Iran from getting a bomb. For five years, Tehran has been playing him like a piano and this most recent incident is an indication that they still have his number.

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Is Congress Bailing on More Iran Sanctions?

Prior to the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, Congress seemed set to raise the pressure on Tehran with a new round of sanctions that will make it even tougher for the rogue regime to sell its oil. But in the weeks since Secretary of State John Kerry announced what he has claimed is a deal that is making both Israel and the United States safer, momentum for measures that would actually strengthen his hand in the follow-up negotiations has slipped. The administration’s pleas to hold off on sanctions make no sense since what created any sort of a window for diplomacy were the sanctions Congress already passed over the fierce objections of the White House and the State Department. Making them stricter to create a genuine embargo on Iranian oil (sales of which went up in November in part as a result of the sense that sanctions are on the way out after the deal) would be a perfect companion to talks. But while few in Congress seem to accept the logic of the arguments made by both Kerry and President Obama against sanctions, the number of those willing to directly challenge them on the issue seems to be dwindling, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle.

The latest evidence of this trend is the announcement today that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer will not back an effort by Majority Leader Eric Cantor to create a nonbinding resolution calling for sterner measures against Iran. Up until this point, the Democrat had been as ardent an advocate of sanctions as any member, but his decision seems to illustrate that he has drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on Iran. By saying “the time is not right” for even an expression of support for more sanctions (the Senate is now considering the tough sanctions already passed by the House), Hoyer had adopted the same wait-and-see approach Kerry and his aides have been selling on Capitol Hill. While some prominent Democrats, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez, have stuck to their guns on the need for more sanctions, others, like Chuck Schumer, have been either ominously silent or indicating, like Hoyer, that they want no part of this fight. This is troubling not just because the argument for more sanctions is solid but because the defection of significant Democratic support will transform the issue into just one more partisan battle with Republicans rather than a reflection of a bipartisan consensus.

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Prior to the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, Congress seemed set to raise the pressure on Tehran with a new round of sanctions that will make it even tougher for the rogue regime to sell its oil. But in the weeks since Secretary of State John Kerry announced what he has claimed is a deal that is making both Israel and the United States safer, momentum for measures that would actually strengthen his hand in the follow-up negotiations has slipped. The administration’s pleas to hold off on sanctions make no sense since what created any sort of a window for diplomacy were the sanctions Congress already passed over the fierce objections of the White House and the State Department. Making them stricter to create a genuine embargo on Iranian oil (sales of which went up in November in part as a result of the sense that sanctions are on the way out after the deal) would be a perfect companion to talks. But while few in Congress seem to accept the logic of the arguments made by both Kerry and President Obama against sanctions, the number of those willing to directly challenge them on the issue seems to be dwindling, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle.

The latest evidence of this trend is the announcement today that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer will not back an effort by Majority Leader Eric Cantor to create a nonbinding resolution calling for sterner measures against Iran. Up until this point, the Democrat had been as ardent an advocate of sanctions as any member, but his decision seems to illustrate that he has drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on Iran. By saying “the time is not right” for even an expression of support for more sanctions (the Senate is now considering the tough sanctions already passed by the House), Hoyer had adopted the same wait-and-see approach Kerry and his aides have been selling on Capitol Hill. While some prominent Democrats, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez, have stuck to their guns on the need for more sanctions, others, like Chuck Schumer, have been either ominously silent or indicating, like Hoyer, that they want no part of this fight. This is troubling not just because the argument for more sanctions is solid but because the defection of significant Democratic support will transform the issue into just one more partisan battle with Republicans rather than a reflection of a bipartisan consensus.

While some senators such as John McCain are still pushing hard for a bill that would authorize the next round of sanctions, the discussion appears to be shifting away from that possibility to vague promises from the Senate leadership about considering a new bill only once it has been proved that Kerry’s diplomatic gambit has collapsed. The problems with such statements, such as the one coming out of the Banking Committee led by Democrat Tim Johnson and Republican Mike Crapo, is that they appear to be depending on the administration for an admission of failure that will never be forthcoming no matter what the Iranians do.

With support ebbing for a direct challenge to the administration, the idea of conditional measures that would put more sanctions into effect if Iran violates Kerry’s deal or the follow-up negotiations stall seems like an attractive alternative to many senators, especially those, like Schumer, who like to keep their image as stalwart friends of Israel and opponents of Iran intact.

But judging such violations or even the failure of the talks is bound to be subjective. This administration is not only heading in the direction of détente with Iran, it is also clearly besotted with the idea of diplomacy with the ayatollahs in principle. Expecting it to be honest about Iranian violations of a freeze of its efforts to enrich uranium at weapons-grade levels (even while the deal grants absolution to low-level enrichment, the product of which could be quickly converted to weapons-grade level in a nuclear breakout) is a stretch. But it is even more of a stretch given the fact that there is no way to know just how effective inspections of Iranian facilities will be and the consensus among intelligence agencies that Tehran has other secret installations at its disposal.

If the president and Kerry think even the talk about imposing more sanctions only after the six-month interim period envisaged in the deal would be a sign of “bad faith” on the part of the United States, what are the odds that they will risk telling the truth about Iranian behavior if it meant that such honesty would mean the end of their treasured diplomatic endeavor?

Even so, Johnson seems determined to protect the administration from any measure that would, even in theory, limit their ability to go on talking to Iran, no matter what the Iranians do. As such, he seems to be indicating that the principle of “Western unity” against more sanctions as well as political ties to the president trump doing the right thing to hold the Islamist regime accountable. While some senators may go on fighting, right now it appears the Iranians have nothing to worry about. So long as the president is willing to treat support for more sanctions as an act of betrayal against the White House, Iran can be assured that there will be no more pressure on them to give up their nuclear dreams.

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Oil Sales Boost Shows Obama’s Iran Shift

Administration officials have gotten a pasting this week as they’ve tried to convince Congress not to pass another round of even tougher sanctions on Iran. Try as they might to persuade both Democrats and Republicans to table efforts to squeeze the Islamist regime to give up their nuclear ambition, many members of both the Senate and the House don’t see the logic in a stand that sees any further pressure as weakening the chances of diplomatic success. So in an effort to bolster their dubious position, the administration announced today that it would expand the list of individuals and businesses targeted by the existing sanctions. The New York Times billed the measure as “new sanctions,” which is not true. What the government is doing is merely following existing laws that have not been zealously enforced.

The decision to crack down on companies that have helped facilitate Iran’s oil sales or collaborated on its nuclear and missile programs is welcome. But it is also a belated recognition that despite the bragging about the impact of sanctions that has been heard from both the State Department and the White House, economic restrictions on doing business with Iran have not been uniformly effective. The Times reported three years ago that over 10,000 exemptions had been granted by the Treasury Department to do business with Iran, a number that has certainly grown in the interim. And the Daily Beast reported recently that this year the same department had slowed down its work opening investigations of possible sanctions violators.

But the problem for the White House is not just a Congress that is dubious about a policy that seems aimed more at achieving some kind of détente with Iran than in shutting down its nuclear program. Yesterday, the International Energy Agency announced that Iran’s oil sales went up 10 percent in November as a result of a sense on the part of the world’s oil consumers and brokers that sanctions were easing. Though Obama’s point man on the sanctions, Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. is determined to hold down Iran’s oil sales, the news about the increase in November gives the lie to the notion that Washington’s efforts have been as determined as we’ve been led to believe.

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Administration officials have gotten a pasting this week as they’ve tried to convince Congress not to pass another round of even tougher sanctions on Iran. Try as they might to persuade both Democrats and Republicans to table efforts to squeeze the Islamist regime to give up their nuclear ambition, many members of both the Senate and the House don’t see the logic in a stand that sees any further pressure as weakening the chances of diplomatic success. So in an effort to bolster their dubious position, the administration announced today that it would expand the list of individuals and businesses targeted by the existing sanctions. The New York Times billed the measure as “new sanctions,” which is not true. What the government is doing is merely following existing laws that have not been zealously enforced.

The decision to crack down on companies that have helped facilitate Iran’s oil sales or collaborated on its nuclear and missile programs is welcome. But it is also a belated recognition that despite the bragging about the impact of sanctions that has been heard from both the State Department and the White House, economic restrictions on doing business with Iran have not been uniformly effective. The Times reported three years ago that over 10,000 exemptions had been granted by the Treasury Department to do business with Iran, a number that has certainly grown in the interim. And the Daily Beast reported recently that this year the same department had slowed down its work opening investigations of possible sanctions violators.

But the problem for the White House is not just a Congress that is dubious about a policy that seems aimed more at achieving some kind of détente with Iran than in shutting down its nuclear program. Yesterday, the International Energy Agency announced that Iran’s oil sales went up 10 percent in November as a result of a sense on the part of the world’s oil consumers and brokers that sanctions were easing. Though Obama’s point man on the sanctions, Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. is determined to hold down Iran’s oil sales, the news about the increase in November gives the lie to the notion that Washington’s efforts have been as determined as we’ve been led to believe.

This impression was reinforced by President Obama’s comments at the Saban Forum last weekend when he defended a policy of granting sanctions relief as being aimed at creating a political constituency inside Iran for nuclear concessions. It’s hard to know just how seriously to take such pronouncements. Does the president really believe that the Islamist regime cares about public opinion given its complete indifference to it on every issue, especially regarding the suppression of dissent? Moreover, given the fact that he has already discarded the considerable economic and political leverage he holds over the ayatollahs in exchange for virtually nothing, it’s difficult to believe holding off on more sanctions will make them more rather than less amenable to giving up their nuclear dreams.

Even more to the point, the statements from Obama and Kerry that demonstrate how afraid they are of Iranian displeasure and the desire to appease their anger about sanctions make the promise of tougher enforcement in the future even less credible. Kerry told the Senate on Tuesday that he didn’t think companies would plan to do business with Iran given the possibility of the U.S. imposing tougher sanctions in the future. But what the November oil statistics and the administration’s full-court press against tougher sanctions demonstrate is that it is unlikely that anyone in Iran, Asia, Europe, or the United States believes for a moment that Obama and Kerry will do just that. The first weakening of the sanctions was the signal Iran’s oil customers were waiting for and the coming months will likely see even more economic activity with Iran conducted on the premise that once the regulations start to unravel, they will never be re-imposed. If Congress is serious about stopping Iran, that’s something they need to consider when listening to administration pleas for inaction on more sanctions legislation.

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Kerry May Play by the Rules; Iran Won’t

In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, Secretary of State John Kerry had two objectives. One was to justify the nuclear deal he signed with Iran that gave the Islamist regime some sanctions relief and tacitly recognized their “right” to enrich uranium and continue their nuclear program in exchange for a six-month freeze on various actions that could be easily reversed and more intrusive inspections of their facilities. But his real goal was to try and head off efforts by some in Congress to toughen the sanctions already in place to make it even harder for the Iranians to sell their oil and thereby keep their government and its nuclear enterprise funded. He was met with widespread skepticism from both sides of the aisle, as Republicans and Democrats expressed worry that he had set in motion a process that will not stop the Iranians and might undermine the economic restrictions that had already been put in place. The members of the committee also were puzzled as to why passing a bill that would not go into effect until after the six-month period that is covered by the interim accord signed in Geneva would in any way inhibit the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Indeed, a number of them pointed out that having these sanctions in place and ready to be enforced if the talks failed would actually strengthen Kerry’s hand in talks with Iran.

Kerry’s answer to these well-taken points was to say that passing sanctions now would “break faith” with Iran as well as with the other members of the P5+1 group that had negotiated the deal. It would, he said with a tone that clearly illustrated his disdain for his critics, show that the U.S. “wasn’t playing by the rules.” Though he continued to insist that the deal wasn’t based on trust but rather on an interest in testing the intentions of the Iranians, he seems to think they would either be scared away from talks or use the sanctions as an excuse to break off negotiations. Given that the only reason the Iranians have been forced to the table was their worries about the impact of the existing sanctions, this makes little sense. If their goal were to lift the sanctions, why would the threat of more cause them to give up the only way of causing the West to drop the ones they are already struggling to deal with? The real answer to the question would likely undermine support for his diplomacy.

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In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, Secretary of State John Kerry had two objectives. One was to justify the nuclear deal he signed with Iran that gave the Islamist regime some sanctions relief and tacitly recognized their “right” to enrich uranium and continue their nuclear program in exchange for a six-month freeze on various actions that could be easily reversed and more intrusive inspections of their facilities. But his real goal was to try and head off efforts by some in Congress to toughen the sanctions already in place to make it even harder for the Iranians to sell their oil and thereby keep their government and its nuclear enterprise funded. He was met with widespread skepticism from both sides of the aisle, as Republicans and Democrats expressed worry that he had set in motion a process that will not stop the Iranians and might undermine the economic restrictions that had already been put in place. The members of the committee also were puzzled as to why passing a bill that would not go into effect until after the six-month period that is covered by the interim accord signed in Geneva would in any way inhibit the ongoing negotiations with Iran. Indeed, a number of them pointed out that having these sanctions in place and ready to be enforced if the talks failed would actually strengthen Kerry’s hand in talks with Iran.

Kerry’s answer to these well-taken points was to say that passing sanctions now would “break faith” with Iran as well as with the other members of the P5+1 group that had negotiated the deal. It would, he said with a tone that clearly illustrated his disdain for his critics, show that the U.S. “wasn’t playing by the rules.” Though he continued to insist that the deal wasn’t based on trust but rather on an interest in testing the intentions of the Iranians, he seems to think they would either be scared away from talks or use the sanctions as an excuse to break off negotiations. Given that the only reason the Iranians have been forced to the table was their worries about the impact of the existing sanctions, this makes little sense. If their goal were to lift the sanctions, why would the threat of more cause them to give up the only way of causing the West to drop the ones they are already struggling to deal with? The real answer to the question would likely undermine support for his diplomacy.

Kerry’s line dovetailed with the threats issued by the Iranian foreign minister who has already warned the U.S. that he will walk away from the process if Congress votes for more sanctions. Kerry fears the Iranians will torpedo negotiations because, contrary to his characterization of the talks, they are not acting out of weakness or fear. By getting sanctions relief of any sort without giving an inch on enrichment or dismantling a single centrifuge, let alone giving up their stockpile, they have operated as if they, not the U.S., are in the driver’s seat. By expressing the worry that the Iranians will “race” to a bomb if more sanctions are passed, Kerry is accepting this equation in which it seems as if they are doing the Americans a favor by deigning to negotiate with him. Like the president, Kerry believes it is impossible to force Iran to give up its nuclear program. Under these circumstances, it’s difficult to believe the follow-up talks have much chance of helping the administration make good on its promise never to allow Iran to get a bomb.

The disconnect between the secretary and his congressional critics is clear. Kerry thinks the only point of sanctions was to create room for diplomacy, not to put Tehran’s feet to the fire. As a number of committee members noted, they did not pass sanctions merely for the sake of negotiating but to pressure Iran to give up their nuclear ambition.

Kerry’s only coherent argument was an appeal for more time. In six months, he said, we would see whether he was right that a serious process that would make the world safer had been initiated. Indeed, we shall. But given his less-than-candid briefing on the terms of the agreement in which he exaggerated the difficulties Iran would have in re-converting its uranium stockpile to dangerous levels, Congress should be prepared to be told that diplomacy was still viable next summer no matter what actually happens in the months to come. Indeed, if, as Kerry says, the Europeans abandon sanctions merely because of the possibility that the U.S. will toughen them, how can he argue that they will stick with the restrictions in the coming months once he has already begun to unravel them?

Will Kerry succeed in stifling congressional action? The jury is out on that question. The administration has a consistent record of opposing all sanctions on Iran in spite of the fact that it currently brags about the impact of those measures that were forced upon it by an aroused Congress in the past. And it hopes it can count on Majority Leader Harry Reid to protect it from embarrassment if push comes to shove.

But having discarded their existing leverage over Iran and begging Congress not to give them more, Kerry has undermined confidence in his negotiating ability, if not his credibility on the issue. For him, diplomacy has always seemed to exist as a goal for its own sake as a game with rules that the players should respect regardless of outcomes. But while he wants to play by the rules, the Iranians have proved time and again that they do not.

Performances like the one Kerry put on today did little to enhance the chances that some key Senate Democrats will back his play. As war-weary as Americans may be, a diplomatic process whose premise is based on an American refusal to increase pressure and an Iranian resolve never to give up its key nuclear objectives is one that is hard to believe in. Passing the new sanctions bill would warn the Iranians that although they may have hoodwinked Kerry, Congress will hold him and the administration accountable for failure. By talking down to Congress today and asking them to have faith in him rather than pay attention to Iran’s record, he may have made the job of his critics a little easier. 

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Isolationism and a Nuclear Iran

Columnist George Will is right when he writes today that the nuclear deal that the Obama administration has struck with Iran won’t stop the Islamist regime from getting a nuclear weapon. The notion that the U.S. can foster moderation in countries ruled by despotic ideological regimes is, as he says, a “conceit” of a blind faith in diplomacy and good will. But rather than call for tougher diplomacy or greater pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambition, the venerable conservative pundit advises us to simply give up trying to stop the ayatollahs from getting a bomb. If possible, that might be an even worse policy than the feckless pursuit of détente with Iran currently being attempted by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

It’s difficult to argue with Will’s belief that no agreement conjured up by the current diplomatic efforts will prevent Iran from eventually going nuclear. Nor would the use of force by either Israel or the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities be easy or cost-free. But his conclusion that the U.S. has no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran as an inevitable, if regrettable, reality and adopt a posture of containment is one that even President Obama has rejected as not a viable or sensible option. In this case, Will’s normally rigorous reasoning is flawed both in terms of his estimation of what could be done short of war to stop Iran as well as the impact of effective strikes on their nuclear infrastructure. Even more troubling, however, is the sense that his willingness to accept a nuclear Iran has less to do with despair at the options available to policymakers than it does with a worldview that is drifting toward isolationism.

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Columnist George Will is right when he writes today that the nuclear deal that the Obama administration has struck with Iran won’t stop the Islamist regime from getting a nuclear weapon. The notion that the U.S. can foster moderation in countries ruled by despotic ideological regimes is, as he says, a “conceit” of a blind faith in diplomacy and good will. But rather than call for tougher diplomacy or greater pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear ambition, the venerable conservative pundit advises us to simply give up trying to stop the ayatollahs from getting a bomb. If possible, that might be an even worse policy than the feckless pursuit of détente with Iran currently being attempted by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

It’s difficult to argue with Will’s belief that no agreement conjured up by the current diplomatic efforts will prevent Iran from eventually going nuclear. Nor would the use of force by either Israel or the United States to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities be easy or cost-free. But his conclusion that the U.S. has no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran as an inevitable, if regrettable, reality and adopt a posture of containment is one that even President Obama has rejected as not a viable or sensible option. In this case, Will’s normally rigorous reasoning is flawed both in terms of his estimation of what could be done short of war to stop Iran as well as the impact of effective strikes on their nuclear infrastructure. Even more troubling, however, is the sense that his willingness to accept a nuclear Iran has less to do with despair at the options available to policymakers than it does with a worldview that is drifting toward isolationism.

Let’s first agree that diplomacy with Iran is a doubtful bet no matter whether it is being conducted by tough-minded leaders or weak ones. Both Obama and Kerry have little appreciation of the nature or goals of the Iranian regime and what little common sense they have is dwarfed by their hubristic belief in their own diplomatic prowess. As Will states, a deal that leaves in place Iran’s nuclear facilities and its stockpile of enriched uranium, and even grants it the right to create more is a formula for failure. It’s difficult to imagine any such scheme will not be either evaded or violated by the Iranians in a push to get the weapon their leaders have always dreamed of. The Iranians have spent the last 20 years deceiving and stalling Western negotiators. Any thought that the selection of a faux moderate in their fake presidential election presages a genuine shift on the part of the true rulers of Iran is a product of wishful thinking.

But however dubious we should be about Iran’s intentions, it is simply not true to claim, as Will does, that “any agreement” would be as futile as the one Obama has foolishly embraced. A deal that dismantled Iran’s centrifuges and nuclear plants and that resulted in the export of their uranium stockpile would be one that would prevent them from getting a bomb. Granted, the Iranians may well have more facilities than the ones under discussion. Intelligence agencies take it as a given that there are secret facilities where unknown nuclear activities are being conducted. Yet a negotiated end to the international sanctions on Iran that produced a genuine and strict inspection of the country might well root out most of the ayatollahs’ nuclear toys or at least enough to severely restrict their ability to reconstitute their program.

Such a deal might be possible if, rather than weakening sanctions in a vain effort to encourage Iranian moderates, the West tightened the economic restrictions on trade with Tehran and instituted a comprehensive embargo of Iranian oil. That kind of an embargo would be tough to enforce without the full support of Russia and China. But we’ll never know whether it could work or if such crippling sanctions would bring the regime to its knees until it is tried.

As for the use of force, Will is probably right that Israel may not be able to stop Iran on its own. It is also true that even a far more comprehensive strike by the U.S. wouldn’t necessarily end the threat for all time. But in dismissing the possibility that a series of strikes could stop Iran in the long run, Will is ignoring the fact that it is highly unlikely that a country already nearing bankruptcy could afford the massive costs involved in reconstituting a nuclear program it took them decades to build. There is no reason to believe that Iran could simply rebuild everything in a few years. And even if strikes did merely put off an Iranian bomb for a few years or a decade, that would buy the world badly needed time to prepare for the Iranian threat. It would also give the Iranian people an opportunity to perhaps unseat a tyrannical regime.

An armed conflict with Iran is not a scenario anyone should regard as anything but a last resort. But the assumption that it would be worse than a nuclear Iran is the real fallacy here. Will agrees with the Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack that the only choices the West has are containment or war and thinks the former a better idea than the latter. That’s why, despite his criticism of Obama’s diplomacy, Will likes the nuclear deal with Iran because he rightly believes it forestalls any use of force whether by Israel or the United States.

Will castigates those who call for a more vigorous response to the Iranian nuclear threat as being “gripped by Thirties envy” because they decry the Obama policy as a new appeasement. Obviously, the circumstances before us today are different than those faced by the West in 1938 when appeasement of Nazi Germany was on the table. But the notion that all that is at stake here is, as Will says, an attempt to  “alter a regime’s choices about policies within its borders” is utterly misguided.

Iran’s nuclear program is not merely a domestic policy choice that the West regards with distaste (which was the way many in Britain and the U.S. regarded the Nazi treatment of Jews in the 1930s), but a genuine threat to the stability of the regime and the security of the West. After all, the Iranians are not building ICBMs to hit Israel, whose existence would be placed in mortal danger by a bomb in the hands of an anti-Semitic regime pledged to its destruction. Those would be aimed at Europe and the United States. Such a weapon would also provide a nuclear umbrella to Iran’s terrorist auxiliaries in the region and allies such as Syria.

In this respect, Barack Obama’s understanding of the stakes in this question is greater than that of the venerable conservative sage. The president knows that a nuclear Iran would be a catastrophe. He just lacks the will or the smarts to pursue the right policy to prevent it. Will is wrong to write off tough sanctions and diplomacy without their being tried. He’s even more wrong to think the use of force would be worse than a nuclear Iran.

Unlike the Soviet Union, a nuclear Iran could not be neatly contained. Not could the U.S. or Israel be sure it could deter it with nuclear or conventional counter-attacks. But unlike liberals who labor under the delusion that the Iranians could be charmed out of their nukes, Will seems to think the issue doesn’t really matter. In making that case, he seems to be endorsing the mindset of isolationists like Rand Paul or trying to resurrect the foreign policy of Republicans of a bygone era like Robert Taft would have preferred. As such, his appeal for acceptance of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a distressing indication of the collapse of the consensus on the right about foreign policy that can only give comfort to America’s foes.

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Only Congress Can Keep Obama Honest on Iran

Judging from the reaction from the White House and its cheering section in the liberal media, the administration is convinced that the nuclear deal it struck with Iran this week is the first step toward a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. By agreeing to legitimize Iran’s nuclear program and loosening sanctions in exchange for cosmetic concessions from Iran that did not roll back the regime’s dramatic advances toward its ambition to get a bomb in the last five years, President Obama has finally achieved his dream of initiating a détente with the ayatollahs that he first articulated during the 2008 presidential campaign. In doing so, he seeks to change the calculus in the Middle East and swing U.S. policy away from its traditional alliances with Israel and moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

The president thinks this strategy will deter Iran from getting a bomb while also utilizing the help of the mullahs to settle things in Afghanistan and Syria. While defended by his apologists as a realist take on foreign policy, this is exactly the sort of magical thinking about Iran that characterized Jimmy Carter’s disastrous engagement with the ayatollahs. While, as I wrote yesterday, the chances that Iran will keep its word and not use American weakness and gullibility to move closer to a bomb are not zero, they are not much more than that. As for changing the region, by granting Iran a second huge victory (the first being his retreat on Syria that ensured Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad would stay in power), he has set in motion a chain of events that will further destabilize the region, make a nuclear arms race inevitable and emboldened terrorist groups allied with Iran. While this does represent a profound shift in U.S. policy, it is one that will leave the U.S. weaker, less secure, and less able to influence events than it is already.

Is there anything that can be done about this? While the president is right to think that no American ally can deter him from pursuing détente with the murderous Iranian regime–as his disdain for both Israel and Saudi Arabia makes clear–there is one factor that could obstruct his misguided attempt to essentially withdraw the U.S. from the Middle East: Congress. Only Congress has the ability to keep Obama honest on Iran.

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Judging from the reaction from the White House and its cheering section in the liberal media, the administration is convinced that the nuclear deal it struck with Iran this week is the first step toward a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy. By agreeing to legitimize Iran’s nuclear program and loosening sanctions in exchange for cosmetic concessions from Iran that did not roll back the regime’s dramatic advances toward its ambition to get a bomb in the last five years, President Obama has finally achieved his dream of initiating a détente with the ayatollahs that he first articulated during the 2008 presidential campaign. In doing so, he seeks to change the calculus in the Middle East and swing U.S. policy away from its traditional alliances with Israel and moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

The president thinks this strategy will deter Iran from getting a bomb while also utilizing the help of the mullahs to settle things in Afghanistan and Syria. While defended by his apologists as a realist take on foreign policy, this is exactly the sort of magical thinking about Iran that characterized Jimmy Carter’s disastrous engagement with the ayatollahs. While, as I wrote yesterday, the chances that Iran will keep its word and not use American weakness and gullibility to move closer to a bomb are not zero, they are not much more than that. As for changing the region, by granting Iran a second huge victory (the first being his retreat on Syria that ensured Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad would stay in power), he has set in motion a chain of events that will further destabilize the region, make a nuclear arms race inevitable and emboldened terrorist groups allied with Iran. While this does represent a profound shift in U.S. policy, it is one that will leave the U.S. weaker, less secure, and less able to influence events than it is already.

Is there anything that can be done about this? While the president is right to think that no American ally can deter him from pursuing détente with the murderous Iranian regime–as his disdain for both Israel and Saudi Arabia makes clear–there is one factor that could obstruct his misguided attempt to essentially withdraw the U.S. from the Middle East: Congress. Only Congress has the ability to keep Obama honest on Iran.

While much of the mainstream media reacted to the Iran deal with relief at an opportunity to step back from the need to confront the nuclear peril, congressional reaction was both sober and appropriately critical. Both Republicans and Democrats rightly pointed out that the agreement the president grabbed was an unsatisfactory retreat from his past promises. Does this matter? In one sense, the answer is no. Congress is powerless to prevent Obama from signing any deal he wants with Iran. His executive powers allow him to release the billions in frozen assets that are being use to bribe the Iranians to sign the piece of paper in Geneva. But the sanctions that have squeezed Iran’s economy cannot be abrogated by presidential fiat. It will take congressional approval to do that, and if Iran is allowed to keep its nuclear toys and go on enriching uranium, that won’t happen.

Thus, despite his urging, it appears that the Senate will move ahead to pass the next round of tougher sanctions on Iran that have already been passed by the House. This bill will tighten the noose on the Iranian economy and make it even more difficult for the regime to go on selling its oil. But far from a breach of faith with Iran, as the administration claimed in recent weeks, passing the new sanctions will be the only thing that can keep the president honest on the subject.

As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez indicated yesterday, the sanctions will probably be amended to postpone their implementation until after the six-month period during which the administration claims it will be negotiating a follow-up agreement with the Iranians. That will give President Obama a chance to prove that his deal is not merely an effort to appease Iran and that he is still serious about halting their push toward a weapon. But if six months from now the Iranians have still not agreed to dismantle a single centrifuge or given up their stockpile of enriched uranium, the sanctions will not be delayed.

As most members of Congress seem to recognize, the choice here was not between war and an unsatisfactory nuclear deal. They rightly disagree with the idea that Iran is too strong to be further opposed or that it is unrealistic to suppose the West can force the regime to give up their nuclear dream. While the signal of weakness from the administration to the Iranians may have convinced them they need not fear the use of force or continued sanctions, a determined stand by Congress may be the only thing that can act as any sort of deterrent against an Iranian nuclear breakout.

The push to pass sanctions will likely be criticized as the work of the dreaded “Israel Lobby,” and we have already begun to hear calumnies of those pushing to restrain Obama’s appeasement as being merely a function of the Jewish state’s instructions. One such statement came last week from Carter administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who tweeted, “Obama/Kerry = best policy team since Bush I/Jim Baker. Congress is finally becoming embarrassed by Netanyahu’s efforts to dictate US policy.” If “best policy team” means most hostile to Israel, he’s probably right. But the key here is the attempt to brand members of Congress who won’t buy into Iran détente as being, in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s phrase, “bought by the Jewish lobby.”

But I doubt Democrats like Menendez or Chuck Schumer or Republicans like Bob Corker or Lindsey Graham will be deterred by this kind of slander that borders on open anti-Semitism.

While Congress can’t stop the president from embarking on this potentially disastrous course of action toward Iran, it can make it impossible for him to further reward the ayatollahs if they continue their past policy of deceiving the West. The president may hope that once agreements are signed, the world will stop caring about Iranian nukes. But the House and the Senate should use their power of the purse to obstruct such a craven retreat from American responsibility. They are the only ones who have any hope of keeping Obama honest on Iran. And they should not be intimidated from doing so by anti-Semitic slanders.

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