Commentary Magazine


Obama Sanctions Signal What Iran Wants

As expected, the House of Representatives passed a bill enacting tough new economic sanctions on Iran yesterday afternoon. The 400-20 vote, which was preceded by a debate during which both House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi spoke on behalf of the measure, was the natural culmination of years of attempts to ratchet up pressure on the Islamist regime to end its nuclear program. If fully enforced, it shuts down what is left of Iran’s oil export business by enacting significant penalties on those countries, such as China and India, that have continued to import oil from Tehran; tightens restrictions on the country’s ability to conduct financial transactions abroad; and adds its automotive, construction, engineering, and mining industries to the list of entities that cannot legally do business in the West. After years of talking about crippling sanctions, this finally delivers what Western diplomats have always said they needed to bring the ayatollahs to their senses. And yet the chief advocate of tough diplomacy with Iran isn’t happy about the prospect of having to sign this bill.

Neither the White House nor the State Department welcomed the bipartisan House vote while senior officials speaking anonymously were unhappy about it. As the Financial Times reported, the administration seemed to agree with the tiny House minority that bought into the arguments of Iran apologists that believes the selection of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a genuine opportunity for negotiation rather than a transparent ruse:

Some serving US officials have also privately questioned whether this was the right time to push new sanctions. However, the government publicly sidestepped the issue following Wednesday’s vote.

“We are going to continue working with Congress to put pressure on Iran, to isolate Iran, but also to make clear to the Iranians that we’re ready to sit down and talk with them substantively when they are,” said a state department spokesperson.

Given that the Democratic-controlled Senate won’t take up the bill until after it returns from its recess in September and that the president has shown little inclination to order its enforcement even if he signs it, the Iranians needn’t worry much about the measure going into effect. Rather than the House messing up a mythical chance for diplomacy to work, the signals from the White House show that Iran appears to have succeeded in setting up what appears to be another year of delays before the West will even think about taking action to stop the ayatollahs from achieving their nuclear ambition.

Iranian apologists like Gary Sick claim the bill is a sign that Iran can’t trust the United States, but the only real problem with the latest sanctions bill is that it is about four years too late. Had the Obama administration pushed for a genuine economic embargo of Iran in 2009 rather than wasting a year on a laughable attempt at “engagement” with the Islamist regime, its belief in the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough might not have been so easily dismissed. Even when the president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally embarked on a campaign to rally international support for sanctions, they were easily intimidated by Russia and China and settled on weak measures that only convinced the Iranians they had nothing to worry about. After a decade of playing games with the West in which they would tease negotiators into thinking they were about to agree to deals only to soon renege on their promises (a process in which the alleged moderate Rouhani played a prominent role), there is no reason to think that another several months of this routine would yield anything that would allow President Obama to make good on his repeated promises never to allow Iran to go nuclear.

By the time the administration is done exploring the supposed Rouhani opening, Iran will not only have gotten that much closer to realizing its nuclear goal but their systematic effort to render their facilities impervious to air attack may also be completed. There doesn’t appear to be any more time for sanctions to work even if this tough measure was put in place yesterday. But the unwillingness of the administration to even contemplate raising the stakes prior to engaging in another pointless round of talks with Iran speaks volumes about its lack of seriousness in dealing with this issue. So long as Obama keeps signaling he is willing to keep going down the garden path with the Iranians, there is little hope that Tehran will come to its senses. The off-the-record comments from the administration about new sanctions are exactly what Iran wanted to hear.

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