Commentary Magazine


No Time for Silence on More Iran Sanctions

It’s difficult to know what to make of a Haaretz story published today claiming four major American Jewish organizations gave the Obama administration a pledge that they would refrain from advocating tougher sanctions on Iran for the next 60 days at a meeting held at the White House earlier this week. According to the paper, “sources familiar with the meeting” said that while AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, have agreed to a “grace period” during which they will abandon the push for more sanctions on the Islamist regime in order to force it to stop its drive for nuclear capability. But a few hours after that story was posted, The Hill reported “a source at an organization present at the meeting told The Hill his group ‘categorically denies that any commitment was given for any such moratorium.’” 

That was confirmed in a separate story in The Jerusalem Post in which David Harris of the AJC explicitly denied on the record that any such promise was made and that they were still backing more sanctions on Iran. A source with an organization that was represented in the meeting also reached out to me personally to “categorically and unequivocally deny that any commitment was made to a moratorium on public or private efforts on sanctions.”

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether it would be right for these groups to bow to the wishes of the White House and hold off on their advocacy—and I would argue that it’s a terrible idea that would elevate the value of continued access to the administration over the responsibility to fight the drift toward appeasement of Iran—the provenance of this story poses some fascinating questions. The contradictory reports leave me wondering who’s telling the truth about Jewish groups backing off on sanctions? And, even more to the point, who leaked the report about the moratorium and why?

Let’s remember that all the initial reports coming out of that meeting spoke of it being one that was marked by tension about the administration’s embrace of the Iranian charm offensive led by their new President Hassan Rouhani. While not opposed to diplomacy, they had good reason to wonder whether this latest attempt by President Obama to “engage” Iran was a prelude to an abandonment of his pledge to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons. According to Haaretz, the administration promised at the meeting that they would not relax existing sanctions and would also not follow through on a proposal to allow Iran access to its funds that have been frozen in the United States as an incentive to keep negotiating. But in exchange they appear to have extracted some kind of pledge from all or some of the groups present (and it was significant that the Jewish contingents at the meeting did not include, as is usually the case with this administration, representatives of left-wing groups that can be counted upon to back anything the president wants) to back down on advocacy for more sanctions.

It’s possible that the contradictory reports are based on the various parties at the meeting misunderstanding what might have been an agreement to disagree or at least to lower the volume on any pushback from pro-Israel groups about the administration’s full-court press this week to spike any move in the Senate toward making it even harder to do business with Iran. Different people at the same meeting could have walked away with different conceptions about its conclusions. But it is also possible that Haaretz is spot-on and the groups have essentially caved to the administration in order to give it more time to allow diplomacy to work. A third possibility is that the whole thing is a fabrication intended by the administration or its left-wing Jewish helpers to undermine the momentum for increased sanctions.

The guess here is that the source for the leak would be more likely to have come from the administration than the Jewish organizations since it is in the former’s interest to have the alleged agreement known to Congress while the latter would probably have wished to keep it secret so as to prevent their supporters from deluging them with protests at what appears, at least on the surface, to be a less-than-courageous decision. If, as some of the organizations are claiming, that the Haaretz story is untrue, is makes it even more likely that the administration is responsible for this story. The fact that it was leaked to Haaretz, a left-wing publication that is often highly critical of American pro-Israel groups, is also suspicious.

It may well be that the administration has repeated in private what it has been saying publicly all along: that it will never allow Iran to have a bomb and that all options are on the table to prevent it from doing so. It is also important that they are not so enthralled with the renewed nuclear talks that they are willing to weaken existing sanctions and that they have rejected the proposal they floated earlier this month about letting Tehran have its frozen cash.

But the argument the administration is using to try to persuade the Senate Banking Committee to hold off on more sanctions is so weak that it is hard to understand how anyone familiar with the diplomatic situation can possibly advocate it with a straight face. Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Kerry, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, who were dispatched to the Senate for a private hearing on the subject, are claiming that more sanctions could blow up the diplomatic process. They are also saying that increased American sanctions would provide a justification for America’s European partners to go off on their own as well and that this would undermine the pressure on Iran rather than intensify it.

But, as the administration has told us, the only reason Iran is back at the table is because of the economic pressure the sanctions have put on their economy. More such pressure would only give them more of a reason to negotiate seriously rather than merely feigning such interest in order, as they have consistently done for the last decade, to run out the clock to give their nuclear program more time to succeed.

The Europeans and Americans have always had different sanctions laws, so the new proposals Obama is trying to stop wouldn’t change that. Nor would it scare the Iranians away from the table. To the contrary, an American decision to hold off on more sanctions would encourage the Iranians to think they have little more to worry about from Washington and allow them to dig in their heels in the talks at which they have, to date, offered nothing new.

At the heart of this debate is the fear that what the administration is after is not so much an end to the Iranian threat as an unsatisfactory deal that will allow it to avoid a confrontation with Tehran while still giving them cover to say the president kept his word. So far, all indications are that the renewed P5+1 talks are heading in that direction. With Iran refusing to give up enrichment of uranium or to agree to export their stockpile of nuclear fuel—positions that the ayatollahs have said constitute their “red line” in the talks—any agreement on those lines would be easily evaded. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said at an ADL event yesterday, “Engagement is not appeasement, nor is it containment.” But that depends on how it is employed, and there is little reason to trust that this administration knows the difference.

After all, the president and his minions have opposed virtually every effort to toughen sanctions on Iran, including the very measures they now boast about as proof of their toughness. Had Congress not acted to impose these measures against the president’s wishes, there would be no reason for Iran to negotiate.

The timing here is also important. If the moratorium reported in Haaretz is carried out, in effect the Jewish groups would be giving the administration three months to go on dithering and accomplishing nothing at a time when, as I wrote earlier this week, other reports are posing the possibility that Iran is actually much closer to nuclear capability than we have been led to believe. At a time when Iran may be moving toward or actually passing the point of no return on its nuclear program, more delays are unconscionable.

While no one should question the good intentions of these groups, bowing to administration pressure in this fashion would be a terrible mistake. Indeed, if they have made no such promise they deserve praise for standing up to the pressure. Now is the time for them to be raising their voices to increase the pressure on Iran, not lowering them to do the White House an undeserved favor.

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