A March to War? The New Iran Sanctions Straw Man

November 19, 2013 Topic: SanctionsSecurity Region: Iran Blog Brand: The Buzz

A March to War? The New Iran Sanctions Straw Man

Congress and the president lock horns.

Does Congress have the ability to scuttle a potential nuclear deal with Iran? White House Spokesman Jay Carney thinks so. During Tuesday’s press briefing, he declared that, if Congress acts in such a way that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue is “disallowed or ruled out”, it could create “a march to war.”

Many Iran hawks have taken issue with Carney’s remarks, with John Bolton saying that "Neville Chamberlain would be proud.” However, a common feature of these critiques is that they mischaracterize Carney’s argument, by asserting that Carney believes that the imposition of any new sanctions on Iran would derail negotiations and prompt a march to war. Elliot Abrams, for example, wrote that Carney “called any effort to adopt additional sanctions against Iran ‘a march to war.’” Carney did no such thing.

Carney was not necessarily arguing against the imposition of any new sanctions; rather, he was taking issue with Congressional efforts to deny the president the ability to lift existing or forthcoming sanctions on Iran unless “a deal that is acceptable”, in the words of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), is reached. And what would make a deal “acceptable”—to Congress, that is? Complete cessation of Iran’s enrichment activities, a hardline position that Iran has declared to be completely “unacceptable” and many observers consider incompatible with reaching a deal. Echoing Senator Menendez's position on zero enrichment, Senator Lindsey Graham recently told CNN that a forthcoming bipartisan resolution in Congress will require Iran to cease all enrichment activity and dismantle all of its centrifuges.

Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) has promoted a bill that would prevent any suspension of U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iran until the Islamic Republic completely ceases its enrichment program. In other words, rather than receiving gradual sanctions relief as a quid pro quo for taking positive steps regarding its nuclear program, Iran must do all that is asked of it before receiving anything that it seeks to obtain from the negotiations; forget the incremental process of give-and-take and compromise that are the fundamental basis of diplomacy.

The issue, then, is not so much the potential for new sanctions per se—although the administration has certainly lobbied for months against any new sanctions—but the fact that Congress is acting to tie the president’s hands as his administration attempts to reach a deal with Iran. Obscuring this distinction glosses over the fact that Congress is doing all it can to meddle in the President’s conduct of foreign affairs.

Of course, there will always be some inherent level of tension and contestation between the Executive and Legislative branches when it comes to foreign policy. But rather than playing a healthy game of political tug-a-war, Congress is trying to tie the President's hands, and the result could be a real war.

Many pro-Israel hawks, like Sens. Graham, Menendez, and Corker, have united around the position of zero enrichment and assume that, as the sanctions regime continues to take its toll on Iran and is even strengthened, Iran will eventually be forced to accede to this position. Their logic goes something like this: pressure from sanctions forced Iran to the negotiating table, and greater pressure will force Iran to make a deal, any deal—even one that merely reinstates the status quo ante after Iran has devoted enormous resources to its nuclear efforts and suffered tremendously from sanctions for years.

The problem with this logic—or illogic—is that it is remarkably ahistorical. It ignores that Iran, rather than being in the business of being forced to take actions it would rather avoid, has historically demonstrated tremendous resolution in the face of great pressure—far greater pressure than what Washington and others in the international community are currently exerting on Tehran. For example, in discussing “the last time we fought Iran”—during the so-called “Tanker War”—Bruce Riedel writes that by 1987, Iran

was devastated by the fighting; many of its cities like Abadan had been destroyed, its oil exports were minimal and its economy shattered. But it did not hesitate to fight the U.S. Navy in the Gulf and to use asymmetric means including terrorism to retaliate in Lebanon and elsewhere. Even when our navy had sunk most of theirs, Iran kept fighting, and the Iranian people rallied behind Ayatollah Khomeini.

Sen. Menendez has argued that imposing new sanctions that cannot be lifted until Iran abandons all enrichment activity is "an insurance that Iran complies”. Hardly. The target of this and similar efforts is the White House, not Tehran. How ironic it is that Carney’s critics decry his “march to war” comments, while attempting to impose constraints on the administration that make war more likely.