Updated: December 1, 2013 7:17AM
Tough sanctions crippling Iran’s economy forced Tehran into negotiations over its nuclear program, aimed at producing atomic weapons. The threat of stronger sanctions would seem like a powerful incentive to prod Iran into a meaningful, verifiable deal, but the Obama administration doesn’t see it that way.
Administration officials met last week with leaders on Capitol Hill to argue that the negotiations are going so well that passage of new sanctions would undermine the talks, scheduled to resume next week in Geneva. The House has passed legislation, and the Senate is considering a similar bill that its backers say would reduce Iran’s oil exports, already cut in half, to almost nothing in a year.
Key U.S. allies in the Middle East — Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab nations — are alarmed that President Barack Obama is too eager to reach a deal, any deal, with Tehran. They and U.S. national security hawks worry about an agreement that would appear to restrain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions but that in reality would leave the regime with the ability to achieve a breakthrough. The administration insists that won’t happen, that it will require tough measures to restrict Iran’s uranium enrichment and strict monitoring to prevent cheating.
Fueling the doubts about Obama are the lengths he went to to avoid delivering on his red-line promise to punish Syria if it used chemical weapons against rebels in its civil war, which it did.
That episode only strengthened suspicions in the region that Obama would not follow through on his threat that all options, including a military strike, are on the table to prevent Iran from getting the bomb.
Then came reports that National Security Adviser Susan Rice has charted a new Mideast strategy that the New York Times described as a “more modest approach — one that prizes diplomacy, puts limits on engagement and raises doubt about whether Mr. Obama would ever again use military force in a region convulsed by conflict.”
That leaves Israel, which understandably views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, as the only credible source of a military strike as a last resort.
Troubling is a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, an independent organization, that Iran’s nuclear project has advanced to the point that it could produce enough weapons-grade uranium to build a nuclear weapon in a month. It said that breakout time could be significantly increased if negotiations succeed in imposing limits on Iran’s uranium stockpile and the centrifuges it uses for enrichment.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) told USA Today the report was evidence Iran was using the cover of negotiations to advance its atomic weapons program. He called for increased sanctions. That surely seems like wise advice. Obama could use Congress as the “bad cop” imposing more economic punishment while he is the “good cop” encouraging Tehran to accept a verifiable deal.
Count me among those skeptical of the talks, but given the reality of Obama’s Mideast policy, new sanctions may be the best hope for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran without an Israeli military strike.