Observers of America's Iran policy might be forgiven for doubting the sincerity of those Washington hawks who constantly plea that they both support the Iranian people and hope to avoid launching a war against them. That's because the hawks—in the think tank and lobbying worlds, and especially on Capitol Hill—keep pressing forward with measures that would greatly reduce the possibility of avoiding said war. Yesterday, the House passed yet another round of sanctions against Iran. This comes against the backdrop of a presumed new push for diplomacy as Hassan Rowhani, Iran's moderate president-elect, assembles an administration that looks to move forward with campaign promises he made to the Iranian people, including "peace and reconciliation" with the world and "transparency"—though not capitulation—on the nuclear program. He's also, relatedly, promised to ease Iran's economic crises, which arose due in large part to sanctions against the nuclear program.
The effort to dismiss Iran's elections as unimportant—despite millions of Iranians' willingness to come out and vote for Rowhani—and forge ahead with sanctions stem largely from efforts backed by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The latest sanctions bill, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act , which passed the House 400 to 20 last night, would impose the as yet toughest measures to date, just days before Rowhani's inauguration. With AIPAC backing, the bill got 376 co-sponsors before Rowhani's election. Some 80 of those were among the 131 members who signed a letter pushing diplomacy and urging restraint—but that letter took no positions on new sanctions. In another letter yesterday, 16 members of Congress urged that the bill be delayed on the grounds that it would be "counterproductive and irresponsible to vote on this measure before Iran's new president is inaugurated." The 16 called for the bill to be revamped to strengthen presidential waivers to sanctions and make clear it doesn't authorize the use of force.
Why not pass sanctions now? A deal would require compromise on both sides, and the bill harms the chance of building confidence on the Iranian side that the Americans have interest in anything other than regime change. The Iranians "have a strong case to make that they can’t trust us," the Iran expert Gary Sick told the New York Times. “What the Congress is trying to do is confirm that." The latest effort even strips presidential waivers, hardly the kind of flexibility needed if Barack Obama, faced with the prospect of a real agreement, wanted to roll back sanctions in exchange for Iranian cooperation. It's not that diplomacy will definitely work; it's that if these hawks have their way, it definitely won't.
Signatories of the most recent letter rose yesterday in objection, for now, at least, to new sanctions. "This bill empowers the very hardliners that are the problem," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA). Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) plead: "Don't undercut our President if there's some daylight. Don't poke the Iranian people in the eye." And Rep. Jim McDermott laid out an impassioned—and eminently reasonable—case for postponing the vote. "I'm standing here asking, What's the rush? For the first time in years, a moderate is about to be sworn in in Iran," he said. "We could come back after our vacation and deal with this if we need to." He added that he was on the floor when sanctions were piled on Iraq: "We've seen this movie before." He noted that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children perished due to sanctions. "Did it change? No, we went to war with them."
Those in favor of the bill gave various reasons for supporting it. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) basically said no deal could be struck until there was regime change in Iran. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) said Rowhani's "actions must speak louder than his words"—a curious take before the president-elect has even ascended to his office. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) insisted, contra all evidence, "This new so-called president of Iran is no different than Ahmadinejad"—referring to the outgoing hard-line two-termer Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The bill's author, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), closed the floor debate with this accusation: Rowhani "was at the table when Iran masterminded the '94 bombing of the Jewish center in Buenos Aires. He was the individual who gave the order, and boasted of it." That charge had its origins in a right-wing blogpost, citing the pro-war pundit Reuel Marc Gerecht, that alleged Rowhani knew of the plot, not that he ordered it. That report remains uncorrected after it was thoroughly debunked by no less of an authority than the aggressive Argentine prosecutor in the case.
Can there be any doubt about wherefrom this hawkish push emanates? Supporters of the new sanctions, almost to a woman, cited Israel's security. Not only is AIPAC directly involved with this and a handful of other efforts that many judge would stymie diplomacy, but other right-wing pro-israel groups like the Israel Project—which held a Congressional briefing yesterday with three Members of Congress who support the new sanctions, including the two authors—and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies have relentlessly press for tougher measures while making no hint that they foresee any sort of avenue for diplomacy at all. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, in the words of the New York Times, been publicly "increas(ing) pressure" on America to take a more hard-line Iran stance, and his supporters in Washington have been happily obliging. But no matter the prime mover behind them, these policies will end badly, by making available neither to the U.S. nor Iran a way to back-off the current trajectory, one that, if Barack Obama's pledges of prevention are to be believed, will lead to war.
The Obama administration got it right last year when then-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice said diplomacy remained the "best and most permanent way" to stop Iran from getting nukes. The experts agree, noting that an attack would not only chance regional war, but would yield merely a delay in the program and likely spur Iran to harden its position on a weapons program (despite proclamations by Congress—most recently in a letter reportedly drafted by AIPAC lobbyists—American intelligence agencies don't think Iran has taken a final decision to build a bomb). Perhaps the most comprehensive way out for America was laid out this month in a New York Review of Books article by Ambassadors William Luers and Tom Pickering, along with MIT expert Jim Walsh. "If the United States is to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, Washington will have to develop new approaches to thinking about Iran," they wrote. "There is yet time for diplomacy, but the longer real negotiations are delayed, the greater is the risk of conflict in the increasingly violent environment of the Middle East." The Obama administration and Washington policy-makers would do well to hear these elder statesmen's voices over the constant din of Netanyahu and his Stateside allies.