The Obama administration, and perhaps the country, dodged a bullet when ten Senate Democrats agreed to delay a vote new Iran sanctions until at least March 24. This included New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, a liberal hawk who is a co-sponsor of the sanctions.
Without those votes, the Senate may not be able to pass the sanctions. It certainly wouldn’t be able to override a sure presidential veto. This buys time for diplomacy to continue.
But those of us who oppose a reprise of the Iraq War in Iran have to begin to contemplate the question: what if President Obama doesn’t have much to show for his Iranian negotiations by spring?
The more hawkish members of Congress are clearly prepared to demand unachievable concessions, like zero enrichment. Failing that, they’ll excoriate Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry as miserable failures.
“This is the worst negotiation in the history of mankind,” Ted Cruz said somewhat hyperbolically at a Koch summit also featuring Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. Cruz predicted an Iranian nuclear strike in “Tel Aviv, New York or Los Angeles.”
Rubio delivered much the same kind of rhetoric: “At this pace, in five years, we’re going to build the bomb for them.”
That left only Paul pleading to give peace a chance. “I’m a big fan of trying the diplomatic option as long as we can,” he said. “I do think diplomacy is better than war.”
If new sanctions blow up the nuclear talks with Iran, our options may then be limited to war or tolerating a nuclear Tehran. Bombing the enrichment facilities may damage but not destroy them. The Iranians would be sure to rebuild them. After being attacked, they’d likely be more inclined to build a bomb, not less.
It would probably require an invasion and occupation of Iran to ensure that its regime discontinued any nuclear program. Paul isn’t bluffing when he asks, “Are you ready to send ground troops into Iran?”
The Iraq precedent is instructive. The 2003 war was preceded by a dozen years of bombing and sanctions that ultimately failed to dislodge Saddam Hussein.
But the occupation of Iraq was hardly a model of success, and today we face an Islamic State that is even more hostile to Western interests and values than Saddam was. Iran is a bigger country and nearly three times as populous.
A negotiated settlement backed by verifiable requirements is the best way to avoid both a war and a bomb in Iran. That doesn’t guarantee that negotiations will succeed, however.
Iranian hardliners appear to want the immediate end to sanctions in exchange for any meaningful deal. That is a nonstarter. So what happens if discussions don’t make progress?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will rally opposition to the negotiations in a March speech to Congress. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has publicly signaled Netanyahu’s remarks will backfire by making Democrats more reluctant to support sanctions, but they could also stiffen Republican resolve.
Cruz speaks for many Republicans when he says, “The problem with Iran is Khomeini and the mullahs are radical Islamic nutcases.” And while a military confrontation would likely hurt Iran’s dissenters and empower said nutcases, many GOP lawmakers think that force is the only way to get the mullahs to bend.
Republicans also generally don’t sense any divergence between American and Israeli interests on Iran, so they will find Netanyahu more compelling on the subject than Obama.
If a deal doesn’t seem close, it will be very difficult to avoid new sanctions. But all may not be lost.
Senator Paul and the retiring liberal Democrat Barbara Boxer are working on a moderate alternative to the Menendez-Kirk sanctions proposal. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who now chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, appears to be open to extending the interim agreement even if talks with Iran stall.
Nevertheless, a lot is riding on the Obama administration’s ability to make headway. With Tom Cotton, the freshman Republican senator from Arkansas, openly pining for the failure of negotiations and even the liberal Menendez accusing the Obama administration of echoing Tehran’s talking points, the climate on Capitol Hill isn’t favorable to the White House.
One need not be sympathetic to their foreign-policy arguments to share their skepticism of the administration.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of the Daily Caller and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?