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February 2, 2015 8:12 pm

Obama’s Persian Roulette

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avatar by Jonathan Greenberg


Until this past Tuesday, Congress was considering new, bipartisan legislation that could result in new sanctions on Iran as it continues to pursue the ability to develop nuclear weapons. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) was believed to have veto-proof backing in Congress. That was until Democrats, under significant pressure from the White House (including directly from the president) decided to fold in the face of Iranian stall tactics.

This follows an episode earlier this month in which US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that an unnamed Israeli intelligence official said that enacting Kirk-Menendez would be “like throwing a grenade into the process.”

Earlier, reports surfaced that Mossad officials had told a bipartisan congressional delegation – including Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Senate Armed Services Chair John McCain (R-Ariz.) – that the Israeli intelligence agency had concerns about new sanctions. Then, last week, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo released a statement contradicting these reports and saying that the Mossad is not lobbying U.S. lawmakers against new sanctions.

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This is, it must be said, a total mess for which both governments are to blame. The willingness of Mossad officials to freelance in this way (and, Pardo’s denials to the contrary, there’s no reason to think that a bipartisan group of senators uniformly misremembered a meeting) speaks poorly of their professionalism and of the ability of the prime minister to control his own government.

But the desperation of the Obama administration to seek support in the unofficial commentary of rogue elements of a foreign intelligence service – as well as White House strong-arming of Democrat senators – should cause Americans to take a fresh, skeptical look at administration policy on Iran. Luckily, the consistent bumbling of foreign policy by this White House should make the skepticism easy to muster.

The Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel. The government of the Jewish state views it as such. It is a slightly less existential (but, nonetheless, incredibly serious) threat to the United States and our interests, to the post-World War II non-proliferation regime, and to international order and stability. The Obama administration views it as a nuisance and a distraction from the domestic policies that are more in the comfort zone of the president. That’s the only explanation for the president’s utterly absurd claims in the State of the Union that Tehran’s nuclear program had been “halted” and its stockpile of fissile material “reduced.” He simply can’t be bothered properly to deal with this issue.

The ongoing negotiations between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and Iran are – and will continue to be – another play for time by Iran. Unfortunately, the talks are also a play for time by the Obama administration which, more than anything, wishes for this problem to still be unresolved in January 2017; this due to the fact that everyone associated with this issue knows that the only possible outcomes are a nuclear Iran or someone forcing them to stop. Neither of those outcomes are palatable to the Obama administration. Hence, play for time.

Before this idiotic round of negotiations began, we effectively had our boot on the neck of the Iranian economy. That boot is removed after we rolled back sanctions (while getting nothing in exchange). The Kirk-Menendez bill would return us to a powerful regime of sanctions in the event (and only in the event) of the collapse of the current round of talks. The Obama administration – desperate to keep these talks in a cul-de-sac rather than the dead-end they are – says the Iranians will bolt the talks if the bill passes. The Iranians, helpfully, say the same thing. And, no doubt, the West will spend months and months trying to persuade the Iranians to return to the negotiating table in the event they decide to leave. Iranian leaders have a maddening propensity to understand us better than we understand them.

If the Obama administration’s claims were true that Iran was forced to the negotiating table by tough sanctions, one would expect the Kirk-Menendez bill to keep them in the talks for fear of new, paralyzing penalties. Those claims are, of course, not true. Iran wasn’t forced to negotiate. They have decided to develop a weaponized nuclear program come hell or high water and they’ll take whatever path of least resistance they’re offered. It’s just far easier and less dangerous to pretend to negotiate than to bankrupt your country and impoverish your people. And the Administration has thrown them a life-line.

Congress should pass the Kirk-Menendez bill now – and by a veto-proof majority. The decision by Senate Democrats to give the administration another two months is a victory for the run-out-the-clock crowd in Tehran. We are wasting valuable time and our naiveté is another embarrassing blunder by an administration that, without humiliating error, wouldn’t have a foreign policy at all.

Greenberg is a Middle East analyst, public policy expert, and former staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He is a senior fellow with the Salomon Center. This article was originally published by The Hill.

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