Commentary Magazine


Congress Won’t Spoil Iran Diplomacy

With the Western powers set to sit down in Geneva next week for another attempt at diplomacy with Iran, the foreign-policy establishment’s hopes for an end to the confrontation between Tehran and Washington are high. But those who have worked to revive the failed Obama administration policy of engagement with Iran are still worried. According to the New York Times, their main concern isn’t Iran’s long history of deceitful diplomacy whose only purpose is to buy time for their nuclear program by fooling gullible Western envoys. No, the main obstacle to the goal of stepping back from confrontation with Iran over its drive for nuclear weapons is Congress. With the Senate set to consider new sanctions on Iran in the coming weeks, the fear is that Congress will spike any chance for engagement and empower the “hawks” in Tehran to stop new Iranian President Rouhani’s supposed efforts to make peace with the West.

While Congress is about as popular as bubonic plague these days, this assessment of the situation which predominates in the Times account is nonsense. Just as it was only Congress that dragged President Obama, kicking and screaming, to belatedly adopt tough sanctions on Iran, it now appears that the only possible restraint on an administration that appears determined to go back down the garden path with the ayatollahs is the continued willingness of the House and the Senate to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. While the president has posed as the adult in the room when it comes to budget talks, in this case it is the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue that is taking the realistic view. Indeed, if there is any remote chance that Iran will be prepared to give up its drive for nuclear weapons, it will only be the result of congressional action that forced the president’s hand.

This is a dismaying prospect for those who, like the president and Secretary of State John Kerry, have fallen hook, line, and sinker for the Rouhani charm offensive. That effort has a two-fold purpose. One is to give Western governments whose heart was never really in the effort to stop Iran an excuse to back away from the sanctions that have ruined the Islamist regime’s economy. As I wrote yesterday, the Europeans are already signaling that they wish to go in this direction and are also warning Israel that there is little chance they will stick to a position that requires the Iranians to give up all enrichment of uranium or to scrap their plutonium option.

There is little reason to trust Rouhani, a veteran of Iran’s bait-and-switch diplomacy as well as a faithful servant of a hateful, anti-Semitic terrorist-sponsoring regime. Nor is there any reason to think that he is any less interested in preserving Iran’s nuclear options than his far-less-presentable predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But those who are appalled at President Obama’s consistent rhetorical stand threatening the Iranians with force if they don’t back down and give up their nukes (a group that may include the president himself) have used Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s fake democratic election as an excuse to reboot a diplomatic process that the Iranians had seemingly finally ended earlier this year. But with the international press buying into Rouhani’s appeal, a path may have been cleared that will lead to Western recognition of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and putting in place safeguards that will be as easily ignored once the sanctions are scrapped as were similar efforts to stop North Korea from going nuclear.

But that’s where Congress comes in. Unlike most of the foreign-policy establishment, few there are buying into the Rouhani ruse. Indeed, one Iran appeaser lamented to the Times that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on the Iranian threat in which he rightly labeled Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” was “widely ridiculed in this town but it largely reflects the views of many members of Congress.”

He’s right. There is a solid bipartisan majority in both houses that understands that the only measures short of war that can impact the situation are draconian sanctions. The new sanctions will make it even more difficult for businesses to deal with Iran and for the regime to go on using the sale of oil to finance their nuclear and terrorist activities. Had it not been for the determined efforts of senators like Republican Mark Kirk or Democrat Robert Menendez, the administration might well have succeeded in spiking past sanctions bills that it now brags about having enforced.

It should also be understood that the notion that Congress will give ammunition to Iranian hardliners and hurt Rouhani’s peaceful efforts is an absurd reading of what is happening in Tehran. His boss Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is using Rouhani as a human shield. But nothing has changed about Iran’s policies or its intentions, as their successful recent military efforts in Syria prove.

If diplomacy has any chance at all it will only be because Congress has forced Obama’s hand via enacting measures that have manufactured economic pressure on Iran. That’s as true today as it was two years ago. Just as important, the excuses that will be used to put off more sanctions once next week’s Geneva meeting proves as much a failure as past gatherings need to be discounted in advance. The whole point of the Iranian diplomatic strategy is to create delay. The Times accurately summarizes the rationale for delaying sanctions:

The problem, say former administration officials, is that this round of talks is unlikely to produce a tangible proposal. While Iran may signal a commitment to negotiate, they say, it is not expected to offer to suspend its enrichment of uranium or mothball suspect facilities.

“If people on the Hill are waiting for dramatic results on the evening of Oct. 16 to decide whether to pass sanctions, that’s wrong,” said Robert Einhorn, a former special adviser for nonproliferation in the State Department. “One shouldn’t set up a situation where unless major progress is being made, we impose new sanctions.”

Actually, that’s exactly what the U.S. should be doing. Nothing short of a total economic embargo of Iran will convince the ayatollahs that their latest effort to pull the wool over the West’s eyes won’t work. If Congress listens to the voices calling for them to pull their punches on Iran, the result won’t be a diplomatic breakthrough. What will follow will be more months and perhaps years of delay that will enhance the chances that Iran will get its bomb long before President Obama summons the will to do something about it.

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