Friday, November 8, 2013

No Time to Waste in Pressuring Iran

by Jonathan S. Tobin

When Haaretz reported last Friday that four major American Jewish groups agreed to a moratorium on advocacy for increased Iran sanctions at a White House meeting, there were those who expressed the opinion that the entire tale was a fake. The notion that AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations would agree to pipe down about a measure the administration opposed despite their public support for it seemed far-fetched. The leak of the agreement to a left-wing newspaper was, in the view of some skeptics, a setup. That view was reinforced in the following 24 hours as both AIPAC and the AJC denied in absolute terms that they had ever made such a promise and reiterated their opposition to such a moratorium. But the statement made earlier this week by ADL head Abe Foxman confirming that he had agreed to suspend advocacy for more sanctions demonstrates that there was more to this than some thought.

Interestingly, Foxman insists that he continues to support toughening the economic pressure on Iran even while saying over the next month his group won’t urge senators to back the legislation that will make that possible. That such a normally stalwart opponent of appeasement of the anti-Semitic regime in Tehran would agree to such a “time-out” illustrates the difficulty of saying no to powerful figures like National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who reportedly was at the meeting. But as much as the whole affair is the epitome of inside baseball, Washington-style, it is worth examining the process by which the administration is seeking to spike the tough sanctions already approved by the House of Representatives. That the White House appears willing to pull out all the stops in a public and private campaign to spike further economic restrictions on doing business with Iran calls into question not only their priorities but the ultimate intent of this effort. Though Rice reportedly assured the Jewish groups that the president would not renege on his promise to stop Iran and wouldn’t ease existing sanctions without reciprocal progress from Tehran, their obsessive desire to avoid offending the ayatollahs is exactly the sort of thing that makes it unlikely that diplomacy can succeed.

The conceit behind the drive to stop further sanctions is that adopting measures that will complete the work of halting the sale of Iranian oil—that pays for the regime’s nuclear venture—sends the wrong signal. The administration and its apologists and cheerleaders have fallen for the Iranian charm offensive led by its new President Hassan Rouhani hook, line, and sinker. Iran’s recent behavior, including its position at the first round of the reconvened P5+1 talks, was no different than past stands with regard to its “right” to enrich uranium or to hold onto to its existing stockpile of nuclear fuel. Yet opponents of further sanctions still claim that Iran is moving toward the West, even though they can point to no evidence, either in terms of diplomatic initiatives or statements from the country’s supreme leader, that back up this assertion. As such, they are engaged in a circular argument that holds no water.

It is not just that the existing sanctions—which were opposed by the administration and other liberal opponents of the current proposal—are the only thing that brought Iran back to the table at all. It is that by showing an unwillingness to raise the price of intransigence, President Obama is embarking on a diplomatic process with no clear end game. That plays right into the now-familiar Iranian strategy of dragging out such talks for months and even years, buying more time for its nuclear program to achieve its goal. If opponents of the administration are insisting on more sanctions now, it is not because they oppose diplomacy–though only a fool would think they had much of a chance given Iran’s behavior. Rather, it is because the strategy being charted by Washington, and on behalf of which they are seeking to enlist the support of pro-Israel groups, is one that is almost guaranteed to drag out the process to no useful end.

The key to understanding this issue is in knowing that time is the crucial factor. Every month wasted on inaction or feckless U.S. engagement brings the Iranians closer to realizing their ambition of obtaining a weapon or to achieving a nuclear capability that will render the use of force impossible. AIPAC and the AJC were right to want no part of such a path. The ADL, which in this case appears to have made a decision that prioritized keeping friendly relations with the White House over support for what it knew to be right, should rethink its decision to stay quiet, even if it is only for a crucial month or two.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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