Thursday, August 1, 2013

Congress Can’t Hesitate on Iran Sanctions

by Jonathan S. Tobin

Supporters of appeasement of Iran are worried. In the last month, the foreign policy establishment has been promoting the idea that new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a true moderate who can help end the nuclear impasse between Tehran and the West over the Iranian drive for nuclear weapons. This belief has more to do with the desire to persuade President Obama to either negotiate a deal that will allow the ayatollahs to retain their program or to drop his opposition to a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran than it does with any real hope for a satisfactory agreement. But it has energized pro-Tehran groups like the notorious National Iranian American Council and members of Congress like Rep. Keith Ellison, who hope to use Iran’s Rouhani ruse to spike efforts to toughen sanctions on the regime that are scheduled to come to a vote today.

The question today is whether the leadership of the House is willing to be sucked into the latest instance of Iran’s efforts to stall and/or deceive the West on nukes. Though advocates of outreach to Rouhani claim he is the only hope for a deal, if the new sanctions are held up in the House or in the Senate out of a desire to support the Iranian president against the “hard-liners” in Iran, it will actually spike what is left of the already minimal chances that the nuclear threat can be stopped by anything short of force.

Up until recently, support for Iran sanctions has been a matter of bipartisan consensus. Even when President Obama was wasting much of his first term on feckless efforts to engage Tehran and refusing to back tough sanctions that would shut down Iran’s lucrative oil trading business, there was overwhelming backing from both the Republican and Democratic caucuses for efforts to isolate the Islamist regime. The current sanctions bill that would close up the remaining loopholes and lay the foundation for a total embargo of Iran’s oil has 376 co-sponsors. But earlier this month, 131 members urged Obama to reach out to Iran because they believed Rouhani represented a genuine opportunity for a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

This is a misreading of both the Iranian president, whose moderation is more a matter of Western hope than reality, and their political system, since it is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has the power to make nuclear decisions, not Rouhani.

But the real problem here is that any American action that shows Tehran that Congress or the White House is willing to bend on sanctions gives the ayatollahs hope that they can talk their way out of this impasse rather than give up on their nuclear ambition. For over a decade, Iran has deftly played upon Western hopes for accommodation in order to turn all diplomatic overtures into delaying actions that serve their ends. Indeed, as the New York Times pointed out in a fawning profile published last weekend, Rouhani played a key role in a 2003 negotiation in which he and Khamenei fooled Western interlocutors.

As Evelyn wrote this morning, it may well be far too late for even a total oil embargo of Iran to force the regime to give up its nukes, and soon it may be past the point when even air strikes will do much to alter the equation. But even if the administration is going to make one last effort to talk to Iran, the only possible scenario under which that could work is if the U.S. has cut off all of Iran’s possible sources of oil income. Stalling sanctions isn’t an overture for peace or diplomacy; it’s really an argument for waving a white flag on Obama’s promise never to allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapon. Both houses of Congress should remember that and deliver a new sanctions bill to the president as soon as possible.
Jonathan S. Tobin


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