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The Iran Debate Comes to Congress

For years now, escalating sanctions against Iran have been the fallback both for those who do want a war against Iran and those who don’t. For those who hoped Washington would bomb Iran into a smoldering ruin (for there are no troops available to invade and occupy it) sanctions are a necessary part of “coercive diplomacy”—a paper trail which could allow American diplomats to claim they’ve “tried everything” to avoid a war. The template for this was the campaign against Iraq, where the road to war was paved by years of bipartisan sanctions. Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State under President Clinton, went on national TV in 1996 to proclaim that the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children was “worth it” if sanctions prevented Saddam from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Albright paved the way for Richard Perle and his cohorts, who achieved ideological dominance in the Bush administration after 9/11.

But escalating sanctions were also accepted by moderates, often as a means to stave off military action, whether initiated by Israel (with an effort to draw America in later) or the U.S. So long as the campaign against Iran was limited to sanctions, cyberwar, and the occasional assassination, there remained hope of a peaceful resolution. But logic suggests that either the hawks or the doves would be ultimately proven correct, not both. After years of escalating sanctions, we now seem face the time of decision.

The precipitating event is that last month the Iranians, in a relatively free election, shocked the world by choosing in a landslide Hassan Rouhani, the most moderate candidate on the ballot. In what is the most public non-belligerent gesture towards Tehran to come from the U.S. Congress in over a generation—131 members of the House, including 17 Republicans, signed a letter drafted by congressmen Price and Dent, urging Washington to be prepared to relax sanctions in return for Iranian concessions. The letter worried that it would close off opportunities for successful diplomacy if the first American reaction to Rouhani’s election was not—“let’s explore what this means diplomatically” but “tighten the sanctions.” AIPAC, usually very influential in Iran matters on Capitol Hill (any Congressman who doesn’t follow foreign affairs closely knows that it’s the “smart” political move to sign any AIPAC generated letter, and stay on the group’s good side) reportedly opposed the Dent-Price letter, without taking a formal position.

Then this week, Senator Dianne Feinstein, (D. Calif.) a center-right figure in the Democratic Party, circulated a letter asking Obama to pursue diplomacy to test the new regime’s willingness to forego nuclear weapons. Feinstein noted that the sanctions have done great damage to Iran’s economy, and that Rouhani has vowed to increase the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program. Feinstein concluded hopefully that “we” in Congress stand ready to work with the administration for a peaceful settlement. In a comparably encouraging sign from Tehran, Rouhani nominated as foreign minister Javaad Zariv, an American-educated former UN ambassador who is considered an advocate of conciliation with the West. In a further gesture, the Obama administration has relaxed sanctions on certain types of medicine. Clearly the two sides are are beginning to probe one another to see if a deal is possible.

But this very early diplomacy track is now on a collision course with an plan to escalate sanctions, which AIPAC is still pushing along. Following Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington, (where he went on TV to label Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”) Congress has scheduled a vote on a measure to increase sanctions, essentially trying to cut out all of Iran’s oil trade. The bill was formulated before Rouhani was elected, but it hasn’t been withdrawn. It clearly intends to signal to all Iranians, including the hard-liners, that Washington desires not negotiation, but enhanced pressure and eventually war. In the Senate, uberhawk Lindsey Graham is preparing a resolution authorizing force against Iran in September or October. This, then, is the war party’s response to the Iranian people’s vote—more sanctions, more threats of war. The neoconservatives and their allies, temporarily chastened by the Iraq disaster, are back in business on Capitol Hill.

Before Rouhani’s election, those who wanted a peaceful resolution with Iran were largely inert. It was difficult to separate the Iranian people from the noxious President Ahmadinejad. But many in Congress are now willing to look more deeply. Iran has long declared that it does not seek a nuclear weapon, and the US intelligence assessment has long been that Iran hasn’t decided to pursue a bomb. The country is clearly pursuing nuclear enrichment, which it is permitted to do under existing nuclear treaties. Iran of course is surrounded by nuclear weapons states, and its nuclear program—for better or worse—was begun under the Shah, a close American ally. One can find all kinds of political opinions among educated Iranians, but you won’t find many who think that Iran doesn’t have the right to enrich uranium or pursue nuclear research. Moreover, there is no “surgical” military option to end Iran’s nuclear program, which exists in the minds of trained Iranians. We could kill many of them, and kill again—that seems to be what Bibi Netanyahu wants. Is that really America’s destiny, to bomb people in the Middle East in perpetuity?

Iran is a relatively modern, somewhat democratic country—(Is it now possible to argue that it is the most democratic Muslim country in the Mideast? Or is it a close second to Turkey?) In any case, it is a large country filled with highly educated, modernity-seeking young people. That this population should be treated as America’s permanent enemy seems one of the more bizarre fixations of Capitol Hill. That important figures in Congress—and Feinstein is highly respected on both sides of the aisle—are finally challenging this idée fixe is long overdue and extraordinarily welcome.

about the author

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottMcConnell9.

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