Commentary Magazine


More Pressure on Iran Can’t Wait

The panic from the administration and the foreign-policy establishment about the possibility that Congress will act to strengthen sanctions against Iran is hard to understand. Since even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is running around the world saying that only sanctions and the threat of the use force on Israel’s part are the only things that brought Iran back to the negotiating table, it’s hard to fathom why making it even harder for Tehran to sell its oil and conduct business with those willing to brave the ire of the West will scare away them away. Yet, as we saw last week, the administration is so upset about the possibility that the Senate will follow up on House actions to tighten the sanctions that it not only sent in the heavy artillery to Capitol Hill to persuade them to back off but also tried to muscle Jewish groups into agreeing to a 60-day moratorium on advocacy for more pressure on Iran.

Those fears were echoed today in the New York Times. The paper doubled up on calls for engagement with Iran and a halt to pressure with an editorial and a curiously tone-deaf op-ed by diplomat Ryan Crocker that Michael Rubin already discussed. While it is worth taking apart the arguments against further sanctions, it is just as important, if not more so, to ponder why it is these voices are being raised now with such urgency. Though we are told that the goal is to further the cause of a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, the urgency with which they are being put forward must raise suspicions that what is really being sought is a way to set the table for a deal that will resolve nothing but make action to halt the threat impossible.

The myth being put forward by the administration and its cheerleaders in the press is that more sanctions now would so offend the Iranians that they would halt the efforts toward diplomacy and weaken new President Hassan Rouhani in his efforts to convince the “hard-liners” in Tehran of the West’s goodwill. They assume, in the Times’s words, that Iran has now finally started to act in a “reasonable” manner and a continuation of the policies that brought them to the table would end all hope of diplomacy. But the absurdity of this position is so obvious that it is astonishing that anyone who has actually been paying attention to the last decade or more of diplomatic engagement with Iran could put it forward with a straight face.

First, the assumption that Rouhani’s charm offensive is anything more than atmospherics is based on nothing more than the wishes of many in the West that the dispute would simply go away. The Iranian behavior in the latest round of the revived P5+1 talks that is touted by the Times as such a revolutionary change was actually no different than their posture in previous meetings. They have not weakened their resolve to go on enriching uranium nor have they stepped down from a “red line” position in which they absolutely refuse to surrender their existing stockpile of nuclear fuel. The only thing that has changed is that many in the West seem to have become so entranced with Rouhani and the possibility of renewed diplomacy that they are seeking to weaken the West’s demands.

Even more to the point, if everyone takes it as a given that sanctions convinced the Iranians to give diplomacy another try—whether as part of a genuine desire for a negotiated settlement or because they want to use it, as they have in the past, to run out the clock further until they reach their nuclear goal—why would they turn and run if the West were to make it even more expensive for them to continue to defy the international community? If they are truly worried about the cost of sanctions—and the ayatollahs have been largely indifferent to the sufferings of the Iranian people up until this point—more of them can only give them a greater incentive to be forthcoming in the talks.

But the acclaim with which both the administration and outlets like the Times have greeted Iran’s minimal gestures can only fuel suspicions that what is at play here is not a search for the proper strategy to make diplomacy work but a desire to avoid confrontation with Tehran at all costs.

The administration has promised time and again that it would not allow Iran to go nuclear and that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” But it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that those pushing hard to weaken the West’s hand in these talks by eschewing the one tactic that has the ability to make the Iranians worry are more afraid of coming to grips with the truth about this problem than they are about the Islamist regime attaining nuclear capability. The sooner the Iranians are truly put to the test and made to answer whether they are willing to give up their nuclear program the better, and only more sanctions that create a genuine embargo of their oil trade will do that.

Even more importantly, the Times argues that if appeasement disguised as engagement fails, as it as time and again, more sanctions can be imposed next year or the year after. But it should be remembered that it took this administration nearly four years to agree to the sort of tough sanctions that finally brought the Iranians back to the table–and then only at the insistence of Congress after arguments against the measures put forward by both President Obama’s foreign-policy team and the Times. Now they are back at it again seeking to kick the can down the road another several months, or perhaps years.

But as we noted here last week, time is rapidly running out for the West or Israel to do something to avert the dire scenario by which Iran will attain the ability to threaten both Israel and Arab nations like Saudi Arabia and to back up their terrorist auxiliaries with a nuclear umbrella. After all these years of failed diplomacy, an argument for more delays is the moral equivalent of arguing for containment of a nuclear Iran rather than stopping it from happening.

The Senate must reject these voices of appeasement and act, as it did in 2011 and 2012, over the objections of the administration and pass more sanctions on Iran as soon as possible. A failure to do so will have incalculable consequences.

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