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.