“Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran,” President Obama said in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, “where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.”
This was, in fact, false. For the last year, even as negotiations have continued, the Iranians have exploited loopholes in the interim agreement to keep progress on their nuclear program very much un-halted. Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has expanded; the interim deal limits enrichment by purity—they can only get about 60 percent of the way to weapons-grade purity without violating the deal—but it doesn’t limit by volume. Construction has continued on the heavy water plant in Arak, which could function as a factory for plutonium bombs; the interim agreement only prohibits firing the reactor itself. And work continues on Iran’s ballistic missile program, which the interim agreement doesn’t even attempt to curb.
Sanctions on Iran Impending? Not Yet
But leave that aside. The president was merely indulging his habit of touting accomplishments that aren’t actually accomplishments. What he said a few sentences later was even more problematic:
But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails—alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.
A casual listener might assume that Congress is considering sanctions that would kick in as soon as they’re passed. But that’s simply not the case: The bill advocated by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez triggers sanctions only if negotiators miss the June 30 deadline the administration set for securing an agreement.
The notion that the Iranians would be pushed to walk away from the negotiating table by the threat of sanctions that would bite if the Iranians walked away from the negotiating table is incoherent. So why is Obama so adamantly opposed to sanctions legislation that has fairly broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill?
There is an intelligible reason that Obama might oppose Kirk-Menendez, although it wouldn’t make for a good line in a speech: Obama may want to let talks drag on further, or to sign a deal with Iran that Congress wouldn’t like.
Kirk-Menendez establishes a series of criteria (significantly watered down from the version of the bill that former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid killed in the last Congress) that Iran must meet in a nuclear agreement to avoid sanctions. It makes sense to oppose Kirk-Menendez if the Obama administration wants to either extend the interim agreement again or sign a deal that wouldn’t necessarily check Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Or Perhaps Obama Fantasizes He Can Reset the Middle East
It may be, his protestations that he “keep[s] all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran” notwithstanding, that Obama sees diplomacy with Iran as inherently desirable not simply as a means toward nonproliferation but as a path toward a broader rapprochement with Tehran.
This would explain why Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s proxy in Damascus, wasn’t mentioned in last night’s speech, and why U.S. planes operating in Syrian territory have left the dictator’s forces alone. And it would explain the letter President Obama sent to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei last year (at least the fourth such letter he’s sent) touting the shared interest Washington and Tehran have in fighting the Islamic State. Obama may imagine that he is the president who is going to break through the Islamic Republic’s anti-Americanism and realign the Middle East.
This is, of course, an insane fantasy (and to be fair, systematic thinking about where Obama’s instincts lead him may give him too much credit). The government in Yemen, Washington’s partner in fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was just overrun by rebels backed by Iran. A closer Middle Eastern ally faces constant threats from Iranian proxies in the Levant—though unlike the Yemenis, the Israelis are pretty good about taking care of themselves.
And Tehran’s use of violence as an instrument of statecraft isn’t limited to the region; the Islamic Republic’s special brand of power-projection has extended to Europe and South America (where investigating Iranian terrorism can be dangerous), and has come close to touching the United States.
This regime isn’t ever going to fit comfortably into an international order that serves American interests. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Punishing sanctions are what induced Iran to negotiate in the first place, and the threat that they’ll return is the best hope for a deal that might end the Iranian nuclear weapons program without war.
There’s a good chance that the House and Senate both have the votes to not only pass the Kirk-Menendez sanctions bill but to override Obama’s veto. They should do so immediately.