Obama's False Choice on Iran

By Mark Wallace & David Ibsen

The discussion over halting Iran's nuclear program, long a bipartisan matter, took an unfortunate and ugly turn two months ago, reaching a crescendo in recent days.

We refer to the White House's ferocious and ongoing campaign to prevent Congress from pursuing new sanctions against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In short, the Obama administration believes that Congress, by passing new Iran sanctions, will blow up the agreement it reached in Geneva. To fend this off, the White House has been bellicosely characterizing anyone who supports new sanctions on Iran (or opposes the Geneva agreement, for that matter) as a dishonest warmonger.

It began November 12, when White House Press Secretary Jay Carney accused Congress of a "march to war" for considering new sanctions, an attack he repeated the next day. Shortly thereafter, President Obama himself more discreetly said, "If in fact we're serious about trying to resolve this diplomatically," then we should recognize that "military options are always messy."

The administration's efforts continued through the holidays, and have this month intensified in response to a new Senate bill. Last week, a White House National Security Council official, Bernadette Meehan, stated, "If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American public and say so. Otherwise, it's not clear why any member of Congress would support [the] bill ..."

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Given those words, one might surmise that Ms. Meehan was referring to an extremist bit of legislation being pushed by a small Congressional faction. On the contrary, she was talking about the Senate's "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act," authored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), which has the support of a bipartisan majority of U.S. Senators. For Ms. Meehan to assert that the majority of U.S. Senators secretly want a war and are not being "up front with the American public" is nonsensical, beyond the pale and puzzling for a variety of reasons.

For one, sanctions are a non-violent policy tool used to avoid war. It was, after all, President Obama himself who, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, described sanctions as "alternatives to violence" that must be "tough enough to actually change behavior." The idea that somehow the mere consideration of additional sanctions -- ones with humanitarian carve-outs, reversibility, broad discretionary and waiver authority for the President, and delayed implementation corresponding to the Geneva agreement -- will invariably lead to war is not logical.

Second, don't forget that just a few months ago Congress was decidedly split on the question of whether to deploy military assets against key Iranian ally Syria -- despite impassioned efforts by the Obama administration to persuade them otherwise. There is simply no evidence that members of Congress are hungry for a war.

Third, the White House's belief that sanctions would cancel out the Geneva agreement and/or lead to war, if true, says far more about the mindset of the Iranians than that of the U.S. Senate. Indeed, in the White House's false dichotomy between the current draft agreement and war is certainly a disturbing failure to hold the Iranians accountable for their actions. War is presented as an outcome divorced from a cause, a threat to cajole opponents and skeptics into accepting a deal on Iran's terms (e.g. no cessation of enrichment). Such a construct is false, however; if war were ever to occur, far more blame would rest at Tehran's feet than America's.

Let's not forget that this entire problem is about Iran's illegal, threatening and deceitful nuclear activities. It is Iran that has openly defied UN Security Council resolutions for years. It is Iran's intransigence and disregard for international law, as well as its record of terrorism, which have brought all of this about. To lay the blame for the potential escalation of this crisis at the feet of the U.S. Senate is incongruous.

In his speech to the Nobel Committee President Obama also stated the following:

Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable. Sanctions must exact a real price. ... It is also incumbent upon all of us to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted. Those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia.

In this case, multiple UN Security Council resolutions have been flouted, as has the NPT. An arms race in the Middle East may be imminent, and Iran is now bragging that the world has finally "surrendered to Iranian nation's will" and permanently recognized its "right to enrichment." Iran has also describing the agreement as a no-risk opportunity, stating, "as this game is played in our court, we cannot lose ... these interconnections can be removed in a day."

Tellingly, the opposite narrative has not been coming from the U.S. The Obama administration is not itself threatening to blow up the agreement with Iran if there are delays, backtracks or continued assertions of an Iranian right to enrichment. Rather, the administration is treating the Iranian regime as a demanding customer that we must all walk on eggshells to avoid offending.

This is unacceptable. We must not allow blame for this crisis to be assigned anywhere but where it belongs, and we should certainly say "enough is enough" when it comes to cheap political attacks on the individuals in Congress and elsewhere who have done the most to put the president's directives for accountability, respect and security into practice.

The writers are members of the foreign policy coalition, United Against Nuclear Iran. Wallace serves as CEO and Ibsen as Executive Director.

(AP Photo)

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