Last week, the Obama administration succeeded in pressuring Democrats to insist there not be a vote on the Senate floor in support of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 until after the March 24 deadline for negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear weapons program. Lacking the votes in the Senate to impose cloture, Republicans had little choice but to go along. But the delay is unfortunate. Senate Democrats may simply have ensured that sometime prior to the deadline, the administration will announce a framework agreement with Iran as deeply flawed as the current interim agreement, which the White House claimed, falsely we now know, would freeze Iran’s nuclear program.
With the congressional fight over sanctions seemingly on pause, it’s a good time to take a look at what’s happening in the real world. While talking away at negotiating tables in various European capitals, the Iranian regime is also on the march. In the Middle East.
The Iranians know that they can fight (e.g., in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen) and bargain at the same time, so there is no real harm to them in talking. On one condition. What the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, cannot afford is rapprochement with the United States. A framework deal that gives Iran cover for an eventual nuclear breakout, while effectively acknowledging Iranian interests around the region, is what Khamenei wants. The historic reconciliation that the White House seeks is a nonstarter for Tehran, since the legitimacy of the regime rests on its resistance to the Great Satan and its allies, with the Little Satan, Israel, foremost among the latter.
From Iran’s perspective, it’s fine if the Obama White House wants to believe that it’s thawing relations and getting to know the Iranians better by talking. What Iran gets out of talks is delay and, as a bonus, some discord in Washington. The recent fight over sanctions no doubt reassured the masters of intrigue in Tehran that U.S. policy-makers are more ready for war with each other than with the Islamic Republic.
For Republicans and hawkish Democrats concerned about an expansionist Islamist revolutionary regime acquiring a nuclear weapon, sanctions were one of the few tools available to pressure a White House that seems all too eager to strike a deal. The Obama administration never wanted sanctions in the first place. In time, the White House came to see sanctions largely as a form of concession to and deterrence of its domestic opponents, a way to mollify critics and show that, all evidence to the contrary, it was serious about stopping Iran from getting the bomb.
Accordingly, the Iranians understood that the White House would be willing to provide sanctions relief. If Obama didn’t sweeten the pot, and if Tehran then threatened to walk away and crash negotiations, that would potentially unleash the wrath of a foe the administration considers more hateful than the Iranians—its opponents on Capitol Hill.
So in order to fend off Republicans and a few hawkish Democrats, Obama had to keep appeasing the Iranians. That meant not only sanctions relief, but also, among other things, laying off Bashar al-Assad and recognizing Iranian interests in Syria. It meant coordinating with IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in Iraq against the Islamic State. It meant sharing intelligence with Hezbollah in Lebanon. All these are serious strategic victories for Tehran. But perhaps Iran’s most valuable win is to have neutralized the power capable of stopping its drive for nuclear weapons—the United States—by inducing American policymakers to tie themselves down in a fight over sanctions.
Even in the best-case scenario, sanctions were designed not to stop the Iranian regime from getting the bomb, but rather to force them to the table, where they might be persuaded to come to their good senses and abandon their dangerous dreams. Now with sanctions apparently off the table until at least March, it’s a good time to recalibrate by returning to first principles. The policy of the United States is to stop Iran from getting the bomb—by any means necessary, including, as even President Obama has said, through the use of military force. No policy of sanctions, bargaining, or inducements can work unless the use of force becomes once more a credible possibility. But is that possible with this president?