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May 18, 2012

Finally an Iran Commentary With Some Substance
Posted by David Shorr

WSJeditoriallogoThe reason I appreciate yesterday's Wall Street 
Journal column from United Against Nuclear Iran
isn't that I agree with it. What I like about the piece is that it's solid enough to offer a basis for disagreement. Whereas the Romney camp has given us nothing but faith in the magic of flinty resolve -- no matter how ill-defined or impractical -- and pot shots at a completely fictitious Obama policy, these US, Israeli, and German former senior officials have put a more concrete proposal on the table. It's a sign of the times and our low-quality debate when it is bold for conservatives merely to admit the possibility of a peaceful solution with Iran, but there we are.

Unlike President Obama's political opponents, the authors credit the most recent set of sanctions with having "a tangible impact" and say about the banking sanctions in particular: "the ripple effect has been staggering." (I have an article in the News Desk/G8 Research Group Camp David summit magazine detailing how the sanctions work.) Now, United Against Nuclear Iran does want everyone to know, by the way, that they've advocated such sanctions for a long time. But whenever I hear this question of 'what took Obama so long,' then I want to know why President Bush didn't put banking and energy sanctions in place?

The heart of the authors' proposal is a set of steps to ratchet up to "total sanctions": a cut-off of any flows between Iran and the global financial system, disclosure of all business investments and transactions in Iran, refusal of cargo ships that have carried goods to or from Iran, and sanctions against any insurance underwriting in Iran. Because when it comes to sanctions, too much is never enough. As the article puts it,

History has made clear that the regime will never change course due to half-measures; only serious steps like we've outlined have a chance of success. With Iran finally feeling real impact from international sanctions, now is the time to increase the pressure.

Half-measures? Those bank and energy sanctions you advocated weren't serious steps? What about the staggering ripple effect? More to the point, could you tell us more about how the peaceful outcome with Iran will be reached? 

Tellingly, the authors make no mention of diplomacy or negotiations to reach an agreement with Iran. Their shorthand way of describing a peaceful outcome is simply as a change in Iran's chosen course. In the end, the United Against folks are only marginally more sensible than all the other conservative critics. On the one hand, they consider the Iranian leadership to be rational and influenceable, as opposed to hell-bent on getting the bomb. Yet it's a peculiar notion of rationality that sees no need to reach a bargain with the Iranians or address any of their concerns -- besides avoiding economic devastation, that is.

[BTW, as the article itself implies, the sanctions will actually have to be eased at some point. Now isn't yet the time, but it can't be put off until everything all sewn up either. David Elliot of National Iranian American Council has written an excellent post on this problem over at HuffPo.]

The authors of this piece thus have the same blind spot as the rest of the right wing: a naive belief that problem-governments will cave into demands without getting anything positive in return. As I say, the article at least gives the basis for a more substantive debate on Iran; it helps clarify important contrasts with President Obama's policy. 

For one thing, the president and United Against have different immediate aims for the sanctions. The article basically argues for sanctions to be ratcheted up until the Iranians capitulate. The proximate objective for the Obama administration is to bring Iran to the table for serious talks -- with a recent P5+1 meeting in Istanbul and another soon in Baghdad, things are looking up. The operative word of course is serious, and the current sanctions trace back to the breakdown of talks in 2009-10 and the administration's assessment that the Iranians were just dragging out the process. (Obama's shift to the "pressure track" has itself prompted a debate; see articles by Trita Parsi and myself.) Bottom line: the critics are waiting for capitulation, President Obama realizes there has to be a negotiation.

The Obama administration has used pressure and negotiations in tandem. Now that Iran is back at the table, we gauge their seriousness about proving the civilian character of the nuclear program. It's a moment for, as the saying goes, giving the sanctions a chance to work. From reading the WSJ piece, the critics seem to say the time's always right for more sanctions. On the broader question of when to negotiate versus apply pressure, Shadow Government's Will Inboden and I exchanged blog posts (quite congenialy) 18 months ago. Just to summarize my view, the United States shouldn't let ourselves be played for a chump, but nor should we stay so aloof that we forget our own interests in reaching a solution. All well and good to note Iran's interest in adjusting to the international community's concerns, but this isn't going to be a one-way street.

As a general matter, the right wing is seriously tone-deaf when it comes to perceptions of the US in the rest of the world. As far as they're concerned, it's impossible to go overboard with toughness. They're oblivious to the reality that pushing too hard and making ourselves look unreasonable only creates sympathy for the other guy and erodes our international support. In fact, rallying support behind our efforts in Iran and elsewhere has been one of the signal achievements of Obama foreign policy, and one of its main objectives.


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