by Jonathan S. Tobin
The administration is in full damage-control mode today as the failure of Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to make a nuclear deal with Iran has exposed the true nature of its diplomatic agenda. While both the president and Kerry have consistently claimed that their only goal was preventing Iran from going nuclear, the botched effort to rush to a deal last week was based on a decision to accept in principle the Islamist regime’s longstanding claim that it had a “right” to enrich uranium. While many in the Senate think the administration is making a terrible mistake, the White House and its defenders are claiming there is no real choice. As the New York Times asks in its editorial defending a faltering Kerry, “what is the alternative?”
But the administration and the Times are asking the wrong question.
By getting trapped in a diplomatic tangle that can only be resolved by a deal that will leave Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure, its uranium enrichment process, and its plutonium option in place, Kerry is accepting Iran’s point of view about the dispute. In essence, he is telling Congress, Israel, and the Saudis that there is no way the Iranians will ever give up their reactors, centrifuges or their stockpile of enriched uranium so all we can do is get them to accept limits that, even if they will be easily evaded, will at least avoid the threat of further confrontation or war. If the question they are really posing to critics is not whether this course of action is the best way to avoid a nuclear Iran but whether it is the best way to avoid a messy and unpredictable conflict, Kerry is right.
But if we change the question from how best to come to some agreement with the ayatollahs to how to stop them from getting a bomb, the answer is very different. And that is why Congress must use the pause in the talks to step up and demand that the president and Kerry stick to what has always been America’s goal: preventing a nuclear Iran. And the only way to do that is to tighten sanctions and to insist that any deal be predicated on eliminating any chance that the Islamist regime will not do as the North Koreans have already done and simply negotiate and delay their way to a bomb.
What almost happened last weekend in Geneva was so dangerous precisely because by presenting a fait accompli to the world, Kerry would have permanently altered the terms of the debate about Iran. The proposed accord that Kerry planned to sign, had not the French intervened at the last minute to insist on better terms for the West, would have left in place the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and made the achievement of their nuclear capacity inevitable and taken tougher sanctions and the use of force off the table for good. Though Kerry is acting as if this is only a temporary setback that will be rectified later this month when the parties reconvene, it did not escape Iran’s notice that Kerry was hot for a weaker deal than was ultimately offered. That means they will continue to hold out for those easily transgressed terms since they reason that sooner or later the U.S. will tell the French to pipe down and let diplomacy triumph.
That is why it is crucial that Congress act in such a way as to strengthen the West’s resolve not to settle for a bad deal now. There is little chance that Iran will ever give up its nuclear quest, as it has become a fundamental issue for the regime. But a sanctions bill now will signal to Tehran that its belief that America is the weak link in the international community’s efforts to rein them in is mistaken.
The whole point of Kerry’s haste to put a deal with Iran in place is that he wanted to avoid a debate on its terms and to head off any effort by Congress to tighten sanctions. The Senate should move ahead on the sanctions that will make it more difficult for Iran to continue selling its oil and using the proceeds to fund terrorism and its nuclear project. Kerry’s latest follies make it imperative that what we have now is not so much an argument about tactics but also one about the goal of American diplomacy.
What must be rejected are not only the terms of a weak diplomatic deal that was so repugnant that even the French couldn’t stomach them, but the mindset that made it possible. After years of failed diplomacy, the administration is now accepting the notion that rollback of Iran’s nuclear program is impossible. That’s why even though no agreement was signed in Geneva, the latest negotiations were such a triumph for Iran.
Instead of conceding defeat, an America that was truly dedicated to frustrating Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be doubling down on sanctions rather than offering to weaken them. Iran has proved time and again that it regards diplomacy as merely a way to delay and prevaricate until they reach their nuclear goal. But even if we were to hold onto hope that diplomacy could succeed, the only way that could possibly happen is by increasing pressure on the Iranians now that they are finally feeling the impact of sanctions. If every chance must be given to diplomacy, then what is needed now is an approach that illustrates to Iran’s supreme leader that his only alternative to war is a surrender of his country’s “right” to enrichment and the rest of their nuclear toys.
Thus, the responsibility now for members of the Senate is not so much to poke a stick in Kerry’s eye by ignoring the administration’s pleas and passing the tough sanctions that were already approved by the House as it is for them to help restart the discussion about what America’s goals are. If the rush to appeasement of Iran is to be halted, now is the moment for action.
Jonathan S. Tobin
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