Commentary Magazine


Iran Sanctions Foes’ Dishonest Arguments

It’s been a bad week for those trying to stop the Senate from passing tougher sanctions on Iran. After two months of dithering the Obama administration finalized the nuclear deal signed with Iran in November. That should have helped the president to orchestrate greater opposition to the push for more sanctions he opposes. But instead, the Iranians used the completion of the interim deal to celebrate what they say is a great victory over the West for the regime that confirms their right to continue enriching uranium and pursuing their nuclear goal regardless of what any agreement says. That gave the lie to the administration’s claims that the negotiations are succeeding in heading off the nuclear threat. It also strengthened arguments by sanctions proponents that putting more such restrictions in place to be implemented should the talks fail was both prudent and the best way to ensure that diplomacy has a chance to succeed.

But rather respond to Iran’s provocations, both the administration and its allies in Congress and the media have doubled down on their illogical claim that passing more sanctions now is tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran. While it is discouraging to hear this canard voiced by White House functionaries, it is even worse to hear it from those who claim to share the goal of preventing Tehran from getting a bomb. That’s essentially the position that Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg has taken in his latest column. While it is disappointing to see a man considered one of the most astute observers of the Middle East taking such a blatantly disingenuous position on an issue on which he had previously staked out a strong position, it looks as if in this case his attachment to President Obama and his loathing for the administration’s critics outweighs common sense and his ability to offer a clear-eyed evaluation of the situation.

Throughout the last five years, Goldberg has been an ardent supporter of the president even while frequently expressing impatience and concern over his approach to Iran. Though no fan of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Goldberg has treated the concerns of Israel and the pro-Israel community in this country on the Iranian nuclear threat as serious and credible. He rightly refers to Iran as a despotic state sponsor of terror and believes its possession of a nuclear weapon would undermine U.S. security and that of its Arab allies as well as pose an existential threat to Israel. He understands that Iran has deceived the West in negotiations before and can’t be trusted today. He has been a proponent of tough sanctions and hard-headed diplomacy on Iran and has publicly vouched for the president’s bona fides on the issue, going so far as to be among the very few who believe that if push came to shove, Obama would order the use of force against Tehran in order to forestall its drive for a nuclear weapon.

But though he still calls himself an “Iran hawk” (a term that few, if any, other commentators on the subject have adopted), Goldberg has now officially drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on the topic and says the deal struck in Geneva in November is the best the West can hope for. Rather than call, as he did in the past, for an end to Iran’s nuclear program, he’s veiled his former hawkishness, saying he is willing to settle for a deal that will “substantially denuclearize” the regime, a weasel-worded expression vague enough to encompass an agreement that would, as Iran demands, leave its nuclear infrastructure in place and the threat to Israel and its Arab neighbors undiminished.

While claiming to be a skeptic on the upcoming talks, he accepts the argument that any congressional move to strengthen the president’s hand in negotiations would provide the Iranians an excuse to end the negotiations. Given that Iran was brought to the table by sanctions (that were consistently opposed by the administration) this makes no sense, especially since the Iranians have so much to gain by talks that have already brought them considerable sanctions relief. By loosening the sanctions while acknowledging the Iranian right to uranium enrichment during the interim deal, the U.S. appears willing to give up much of the economic and military leverage it held over Iran. But now both the president and his supporters like Goldberg are prepared to treat Iranian bluster as an imperative that America dare not contravene. The illogical argument that the time isn’t right for more sanctions accepts this Iranian dictate in a way that undermines any hope the West can achieve the dismantling of Iran’s facilities and the export and/or destruction of all its nuclear material. The process now seems to be one in which it is the West that is the supplicant and the ayatollahs the masters of the situation.

The Iranians don’t like the idea that if the current negotiations fail they will be subjected to a new round of sanctions that would end the lucrative oil trade that is keeping the regime afloat while funding their nuclear program, terrorism, and their intervention in Syria. But without that threat, their improving economy and the prospect that Russia is prepared to engage in an oil-for-goods swap that will make a mockery of the sanctions means Iran will have no reason to treat the president’s threats of future action seriously.

This is the key point in the argument to increase sanctions that Goldberg and other administration supporters consistently mischaracterize.

Like Obama, Goldberg poses this debate as an entirely specious choice between supporters of diplomacy and those who want to fight a war against Iran. This is false. No one in Congress wants war. Neither does Israel or its friends. Nor does anyone (except perhaps for Goldberg in his least credible columns) think Obama or Congress would ever authorize a strike on Iran. To claim that is the goal of sanctions advocates is a blatant lie. To the contrary, those pushing for more sanctions understand all too well that a genuine economic embargo of Iran, rather than the leaky restrictions currently in place, is the only option that has any chance of bringing the Islamist regime to its senses by methods short of war.

The alternative to tougher sanctions isn’t the war Goldberg claims sanctions proponents want; it’s appeasement that will inevitably result in a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran that Obama says he opposes.

There’s a reason that sanctions proponents don’t trust the president to conduct diplomacy without first committing the U.S. to taking the next step toward isolating Iran once the next round of talks fail (a proposition that even Goldberg concedes is a 50-50 proposition). Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Robert Menendez and other sponsors of the bill remember all too well that the current sanctions about which the president boasts were watered down and then fought tooth and nail by the administration. The administration has consistently sought engagement with Iran even when it meant ignoring the regime’s bloody repression of dissidents and its drive for regional hegemony in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and the annihilation of Israel. Now it appears all too willing to turn engagement into détente and a common agenda that will allow the U.S. to substantially withdraw from the region and thereby place its allies in peril.

The idea that more sanctions now would turn the tyrants of Tehran into victims of American provocations is ridiculous. So is the claim that preventing them will allow diplomacy to work to make Iran give up what they clearly wish to retain. More sanctions may not “denuclearize” Iran, but their passage offers the only hope that this goal can be achieved by diplomacy. The only way to justify opposition to them is to demonize both administration supporters (like Menendez, Chuck Schumer, and the many other Democrats who support additional sanctions) and opponents who want to ensure that the president keeps his promises about Iran. That’s a canard that the Jeffrey Goldberg, who was a supportive but tough critic of Obama on Iran throughout his first term, would never have sunk to. But sadly, such despicable smears are all he and other administration loyalists have left. 

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