Terms of Engagement

Et Tu, Menendez?

Why Democrats beating Tehran down with additional sanctions and zero enrichment guarantees could backfire, badly.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.

If you squeeze a bully’s b — sorry, fingers — really hard, and he buckles, then you keep squeezing until you bring him to his knees, right? That, in any case, is the logic which lies behind the bipartisan revolt against President Barack Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. In an op-ed in USA Today, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained why he had defied the administration’s urgent request that Congress hang fire on further sanctions: "Iran is on the ropes because of its intransigent policies and our collective will…. Tougher sanctions will serve as an incentive for Iran to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program."

It’s hardly an absurd proposition. Menendez, one of the leading Democratic Iran hawks, also recently told an AIPAC meeting that when he began his drive to impose sanctions — a drive for which the White House might want to claim a little bit of credit as well — he was told that force would never bring the Iranians to the table. I’m not sure who, besides Flynt Leverett, argued against coercion, but it’s an unarguable fact that sanctions on Iran’s oil sales and financial system, imposed by the European Union as well as Congress, have forced the Iranians to take the nuclear negotiations more seriously than they have in the past, and may even have helped elect the moderate president Hassan Rouhani.

So why is the White House insisting that Menendez and his colleagues on the left and right are provoking "a march to war"? The obvious answer, furnished by Secretary of State John Kerry, among others, is that Iran would view additional sanctions imposed in the middle of the most delicate negotiations as a sign of bad faith. More to the point, a punitive response by the West would undermine the moderates on Rouhani’s team, and prove to Iranian hard-liners — including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei — that the United States and its allies are an intransigent adversary intent on humiliating Iran and ultimately overthrowing its Islamic regime.

Obama’s critics have a riposte to this claim: new sanctions won’t kick in for another three to six months, and thus will function as an effective Sword of Damocles while talks continue. That’s a pretty risky gamble, especially because anything that prolongs the negotiations gives Iran more time to enrich uranium and reach a point of no return at which it could produce enough fuel to fill a bomb.

But that’s not the biggest problem with the squeeze-‘em-till-they-drop crowd. The reason why Menendez and others really are marching on a path to war is that they are demanding an outcome which Iran manifestly will not accept: zero enrichment. As Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, puts it, "This is a strategy based upon hope that is not supported by the evidence of Iranian actions over the past decade, its past statements, or common sense."  

In 2004, I spent a week in Tehran talking to officials in the nuclear establishment. Almost all of them, no matter how moderate, found some way of working into the conversation a letter Henry Kissinger is said to have written to the Shah in the mid-1970s encouraging him to pursue nuclear power. The evidence seems to show that in fact Kissinger demanded stringent controls on any nuclear facility, but no matter: The message they conveyed to me was that what was good for the Shah was good for the Ayatollah. Even though, as I was also repeatedly told, Iran had absolutely no wish to develop nuclear weapons, it would never agree to forego nuclear enrichment. The first part may have been false, but I had no reason to doubt the second. Even Menendez conceded in his AIPAC speech that acquiescence to the American demand would spell "the end of the revolution," at least for the hardliners in command.    

The negotiations in Geneva last week appear to have foundered on Iran’s insistence that the so-called P5+1 powers explicitly acknowledge Tehran’s "right to enrich." Washington and its allies were prepared to allow Iran to continue spinning its centrifuges in order to produce low-enriched fuel, though they seem to have balked at the language Tehran wanted. That problem can probably be solved through some form of constructive ambiguity — but not, of course, if the P5+1 demands that all enrichment activity stop.

I have no idea why Menendez and other Democrats believe that more pressure will make Iran abandon a core tenet of the revolution and thus undermine their claim to rule. (I asked for an interview, but the New Jersey senator was not available.) Maybe they believe it because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made zero enrichment his own bottom line.

One of the consistently bizarre elements of the whole debate is how Israel’s definition of its national security appears to have superseded Washington’s. Senate majority leader Harry Reid explained his skepticism about the current round of negotiations, saying, "I hope we can work out something with Iran, but I’m a person who really believes in the state of Israel." So, I think, does Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been visiting Israel since Netanyahu was in short pants. But Kerry may recognize that while Israel would be prepared to go to war — and to draw the United States into that war — in order to strip Iran of any vestige of its nuclear capacity, this would be a catastrophe for Washington, which is still digging itself out of the rubble of past military adventures in the region.

With Iran reportedly prepared to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to dispose of its existing stockpile of such fuel in exchange for very modest sanctions relief (and the release of a small fraction of the $50 billion in frozen Iranian assets), diplomats could well reach a first-stage agreement when they reconvene next week. But in order to advance further, Congress and the European Union will have to agree to remove sanctions incrementally as Iran reduces its stock of centrifuges, disables some facilities, and allows intrusive inspection of others. But if Senate Democrats continue to denounce the negotiations as a giveaway — "wild-eyed hope" rather than "clear-eyed pragmatism," as Menendez puts it — then the Iranians will recognize that the sanctions relief they demand is an illusion.

Obama, it’s true, can invoke national security in order to temporarily waive sanctions. But only Congress can permanently remove them. And Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has drawn up, and threatened to introduce, a bill which would bar the president from waiving sanctions. That might be a Rubicon the Democratic hawks would not cross — though Menendez did promise AIPAC that "every day in Tehran will be a worse day than the last until the regime foregoes its nuclear ambition."

Barack Obama has dropped, one by one, his dreams of a "transformative" foreign policy. His policy of "mutual respect" in the Middle East has not elevated America in the eyes either of regimes or their peoples. The "reset" with Russia failed when Vladimir Putin returned to power. Syria has gone to hell on his watch. He ha
s achieved far less than he had hoped on nuclear nonproliferation and on climate change. But on Iran, where the consequences of failure are most grave, Obama’s policy of patient engagement has been vindicated by events. He now has a partner he might be able to work with, and an Iranian public desperate for relief from sanctions. The path to a solution, though full of obstacles, is clear. This would be a victory, should it come, which the president has fully earned. (And lord knows he needs one.) But with the Ayatollah on one side, and Benjamin Netanyahu and his Democratic chorus on the other, he — and we — may not get there. If and when diplomacy gives way to war, let’s not forget who to blame.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.