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October 26, 2007

Sanction This
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Rarely does a newspaper as good as the Washington Post manage to have three stories about one subject in one day and absolutely completely blow all of them.  But today they hit the trifecta with the Iran sanctions story.

First, the ed board piece.  This isn't shocking.  Fred Hiatt is often off the mark, but calling these sanctions part of a "diplomatic offensive" and saying they are a "welcome boost" is simply ridiculous.  I am not opposed to the sanctions on principle, but they need to be part of a broader diplomatic strategy.  The United States should be ratcheting up the pressure on Iran, but at the same time it should be maximizing the opportunities for agreement by offering more financial carrots or at the very least sitting down to talk with the Iranians about common interests and disagreements.  Instead, the administration sticks to its pigheaded approach of making bilateral talks conditional on the suspension of uranium enrichment activities.  It's been  five years people!  That policy has failed.  The sanctions would make a lot more sense if we knew exactly what we wanted to get out of them, or if the Iranians had a clear idea of what they would need to do to get rid of them.  But neither of those points are clear.  So the sanctions aren't going to do anything other than just escalate tensions.

Second, is a story talking about how the President is using sanctions as a way to prevent war and provide more flexibility for the next President.  I think he's doing just the opposite and inevitably locking the next President into a choice of accepting an Iran with nuclear weapons or trying air strikes.  The U.S. continues to twiddle its thumbs and refuses to talk to the Iranians as they build up their nuclear capabilities.  Everyday that the U.S. waits it loses leverage.  These sanctions only make the situation more complicated. Sanctions are very easy to slap on.  However, removing them will require the next President to get a major concession from the Iranians or face significant political heat at home. 

Finally, the Post dedicates an above the fold front page story to the fact that oil prices will rise if the U.S. attacks Iran.  In other news, humans walk on two legs and mint chocolate chip ice cream tastes both minty and chocolaty.


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Before any of this Iran nonsense gets going full force, people need to realize that this is the same ooga booga rhetoric we were hearing about Iraq and WMD a few years ago and we all know how that turned out. The media, as usual, is doing a bang up job at completely failing to keep this administration honest by fact checking their claims. The IAEA has said it sees no evidence of Iran moving towards nuclear technology that could be used for a weapon. I trust the nuclear experts long before I trust anyone in this administration. I wouldnt believe them if they told me that water was wet. You guys didnt fool me the first time, and Im not going to be fooled this time.

I wonder if we should consider the possibility that Vice President Cheney and the administration faction that supports a military strike against Iranian military facilities has already lost the internal debate, and has been give sanctions as a sop.

That is an optimistic interpretation of events, perhaps foolishly so in light of Cheney's record of never finally accepting defeat if there is any chance at all he can get what he wants. On the other hand, we may be underestimating the military's reluctance to launch what would have to be a major operation against Iraq while still burdened with the two wars we already have, at least without a clear casus belli. Since the Iranians are unlikely to demonstrate that they are within a short time of beginning the construction of a nuclear arsenal, and have not so far been reported to have had their own personnel exchange fire directly with American forces in Iraq, a proximate cause for war will probably not show up before the end of the administration. Of course the Iraq situation more than five years ago could argue against the administration's needing one, but there again we need to remember how badly stressed the military is now.

I'm not drawing any conclusions here, just thinking out loud. I'm pretty dubious about the sanctions package on the merits, only because I suspect it could end up tying us up in knots over having commercial contacts with diversified foreign companies that could be alleged to have once done business with Iranian companies in which one of the sanctioned Iranian institutions is alleged to have a financial interest. Some commentators have questioned whether these sanctions make sense as part of a diplomatic strategy; well, maybe yes and maybe no, but they certainly would make sense as something the Cabinet departments could suggest to the White House to hurt Iran without actually striking Iran -- in other words, as part of a diplomatic strategy internal to the administration.

The United States should be ratcheting up the pressure on Iran ...

Why Ilan? I'm not saying I am sure you are wrong. But I find this point made over and over without any supporting argument. My sense is that it has just become the sensible "moderate" position for no really good reason, and gives far too much credence to the administration presentation of purported factual claims about Iranian behavior and intentions. What do you really know about Iranian behavior.

Today Gareth Porter reported that the White House, with the assistance of the military in Iraq, was fudging back in January about Iran's role of the production of armor piercing EFP's. For just about every one of these reports that have come out in recent months - about the nature of Iran's nuclear program, about Iranian activity in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. - skeptical reporters have poked holes in the reports. And some of the administration claims are so prima facie improbable that one would think a very high bar stands in the way of their being accepted.

I continue to be amazed that while you can get mainstream foreign policy observers and presidential candidates to disagree with the White House about Iran policy, you can't get them to publicly challenge the veracity of White House claims about Iranian behavior. This despite the fact that the administration has a proven track record of making things up when it suits there policy objectives. Somehow, mainstream observers are convinced that this time they are telling the truth.

What kind of society do we live in? Is the President some kind of pope or oracle whose honesty and inerrancy are articles of an orthodox American religion, and can't be challenged publicly? How many lies do these guys have to be caught in before mainstream observers will come out and say, "you know, there is a very good chance they are making most of this stuff up."

If you grant your opponents control over all of the facts, you grant them the power to move the center of the policy debate wherever they want to move it.

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The US absolutely needs an enemy in the Middle East and Iran serves the bill, its fictional demonic propensity for The Big One eagerly advanced by both current and former inhabitants of Columbia University among others. These new sanctions, being unilateral, should tell anyone willing to think about the situation that this is purely an America First program to enhance the US occupation of Iraq as well as more lucrative arms sales to our (demonic) ME allies who are "threatened" by long-time whipping boy Iran.

So the WaPo did "blow" the stories, yes, but way beyond the narrow bounds of conventional wisdom, which is that, according to the US, big, bad Iran actually threatens anyone. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

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