Here's a New Year's resolution that participants in policy debate in Washington, and especially those in Congress, should make: be honest about your position on Iran. Say what you really want, and make your best arguments on behalf of what you really want, and don't pretend to be working in favor of what you really are working against. The main vehicle for debate about Iran once Congress reconvenes is a bill introduced by Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that would threaten still more sanctions on Iran and purchasers of its oil, would impose unrealistic conditions to be met to avoid actually imposing the sanctions, and would explicitly give a green light to Israel to launch a war against Iran and to drag the United States into that war. As Colin Kahl has explained in detail, passage of this legislation would be very damaging to the process of negotiating a final agreement with Iran to keep its nuclear program peaceful.
The promoters of the legislation contend that its effect would be just the opposite, and would increase U.S. bargaining power and make it more likely Iran would make concessions we want. It is possible that some members of Congress who might be inclined to vote for this bill, and even some who have signed on as co-sponsors, actually believe that contention. They keep hearing, after all, the trope about how “sanctions brought Iran to the table” and that if some sanctions are a good thing than even more sanctions are an even better thing. But anyone who has thought seriously for more than a minute about this subject—as the chief promoters of the legislation surely have—realizes how fallacious that idea is. Whatever role sanctions may have had in getting Iran to the table, it is the prospect of getting sanctions removed, not having them forever increase, that will induce Iran, now that it is at the table, to complete an agreement placing severe restrictions on its nuclear program. It goes against all logic and psychology to think that right after Iran has made most of the concessions necessary to conclude the preliminary Joint Plan of Action, “rewarding” it with more pressure and more punishment would put Iranians in the mood to make still more concessions.
The people doing the negotiating for the United States oppose the legislation because of the damage it would do to the negotiations. Their view is highly significant, no matter how much one might agree or disagree with whatever specific terms the administration is trying to get. If the legislation really would strengthen the U.S. negotiating position, any U.S. negotiator would welcome it.
And if that weren't enough, counterparts to Kirk and Menendez in the Iranian legislature are providing further evidence of the destructive effect of what is transpiring on Capitol Hill, with the Iranian legislators' bill calling for Iran to start enriching uranium to a level well beyond what it has ever done before if the United States imposes any new sanctions. This is direct confirmation of how threats and hardline obstinacy, especially at this juncture, beget threats and hardline obstinacy from the other side. The Iranian bill also provides a real-life opportunity for some role reversal. Does this threat emanating from the majlis make U.S. policy-makers more inclined to take a softer line and make more concessions? Of course not.
Kirk and Menendez are not dummies. They surely realize all this. Their legislation serves the purpose of those who want the negotiations with Iran to fail, not to succeed. Chief among those with this purpose is, of course, the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made it abundantly clear that he opposes any agreement of any sort with Iran and will continue to do whatever he can to portray Iran as Satan incarnate and to keep it permanently ostracized. The principal organization in Washington that serves the policy of Netanyahu's government—i.e., AIPAC—also has its own reason to hammer away forever at the Iranian bogeyman: it's “good for business,” as a former senior AIPAC executive explained. It is no accident that Mark Kirk is easily the biggest Congressional recipient of AIPAC funds, and Robert Menendez is also among the top half dozen recipients.
Honesty would mean dispensing with the phony issue of whether more sanctions now would help negotiate a better agreement—since they clearly would not—and instead posing the real issue: whether it is in the interests of the United States for the negotiations with Iran to succeed or to fail. That issue can be debated according to several criteria. One concerns the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon: is that objective more obtainable through a negotiated agreement that imposes major new restrictions and intensified international monitoring on Iran's nuclear program, or through continued confrontation that offers neither of those things? A second set of criteria concerns which path is more likely to avoid the danger of a new war—supplemented by discussion of the impact of a new war on U.S. interests. Another criterion concerns whether broader U.S. policy in the Middle East is better served by the United States having the flexibility to conduct its own diplomacy with anyone in the region on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis, or by being locked into hostility insisted on by third parties.
All of this should be debated from the standpoint of U.S. interests. Those with a special concern for Israel can also ask parallel questions, such as whether Israeli interests are better served by an unending relationship of hostility with another major state in the region, with threats and hatred being perpetually flung by each side at the other, or by following a different path.
Let such an honest debate begin. But an honest debate will barely get off the ground unless we discard the nonsense about how something like the Kirk-Menendez bill supposedly aids negotiations.