Paul Pillar

Ostracism Madness

The obsession with putting pressure, pressure and more pressure on Iran, and subjecting it to isolation, isolation and more isolation, has lost almost all sense of purpose and direction. It has become an automatic, ape-on-a-treadmill imperative. It has become divorced from any apparent attention to exactly what such pressure and ostracism can be expected to accomplish or even what we want it to accomplish. In the process, the anti-Iran campaign has sometimes entailed shooting oneself in the foot.

The latest bullet being aimed at the U.S. metatarsal came out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Monday, in the form of an new version of its Iran sanctions bill. The chair of the committee is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who cut her ostracizing teeth on Castro's Cuba—and we've all seen how much a half century of embargo and attempted isolation from the United States have accomplished there. The sanctions bill would make it illegal for U.S. diplomats to have any contact with an Iranian official unless the president certifies to Congress fifteen days prior to contact that not talking to the Iranian officials “would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States.” It is impossible to imagine any purpose being served by such a provision other than enabling politicians to express once again how much they hate Iran and how implacable they are willing to be toward Iran.

If enacted, this legislation certainly would have practical effects. It would prevent any exploration of ways to resolve disagreement over that Iranian nuclear program that we are supposedly so intensely concerned about. It would prevent soliciting Iranian cooperation in areas, such as Afghanistan, where some Iranian and U.S. interests run parallel, and the Iranians could be helpful rather than causing trouble. It would preclude discussion of miscellaneous matters of interest to Americans such as the recent return of those captured hikers. And it would prevent any diplomacy to keep U.S.-Iranian incidents or crises—the kind that retired joint chiefs chairman Admiral Mullen expressed concern about—from spinning out of control, unless the crisis conveniently stretched out beyond the fifteen-day notification period. (By way of comparison, the entire Cuban missile crisis lasted thirteen days.)

This legislation is another illustration of the tendency to think of diplomacy as some kind of reward for the other guy, rather than what it really is: a tool for our side. The provision is so stupid that one can reasonably hope that even if it survives the committee markup scheduled for this Wednesday, and even if the House of Representatives passes it, it would not survive in the Senate. But regardless of its fate, it vividly illustrates how mindless the pressuring and isolation of Iran has become.

The legislation reminds me somewhat of one of the better known episodes of foot-shooting in American history: the Embargo Act of 1807, promoted by Thomas Jefferson. That embargo was intended to pressure the warring European powers into stopping certain actions that disturbed the United States, such as Britain's impressment of American seamen. All it brought about instead was significant economic damage to U.S. trading interests. One difference between that episode and the present one is that Jefferson was trying to avoid U.S. involvement in a war—although war with Britain came anyway in 1812. The more fervent of the Iran-bashers today do not appear to have a Jeffersonian outlook.