The same House of Representatives that just voted to speed up the end of U.S. combat missions in Afghanistan seems eager to embroil America in another war in the greater Mideast — with Iran.
In high dudgeon, House members voted, 400-20, last week for more harsh economic sanctions on Tehran — just before the inauguration of Iran’s president-elect, Hassan Rowhani. The new Iranian leader says he wants to ease tensions with Washington, and has signaled he may be ready to limit Iran’s nuclear program. But rather than test the new leader’s bona fides, Congress chose to greet him with a slap in the face.
Sure, skepticism is called for. But Rowhani’s overtures deserve to be examined, not least because Congress and the White House keep stressing that force is an option if sanctions don’t work.
Sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy badly (which is why Rowhani wants a deal), but they haven’t curbed the nuclear program. Negotiations just might be able to do so now that Rowhani has replaced the nasty, Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Of course, the rationale given for the House bill was that more pressure — applied right now — will force the Iranian regime to make concessions. Given the historic level of mistrust between Iran and America, however, the opposite is more likely.
This move reminds me of conversations I had with Iranians involved in talks with U.S. officials in 2001, when Tehran cooperated with Washington in ousting the Afghan Taliban. Soon afterward, George W. Bush labeled Iran part of the “axis of evil,” which, my sources said, undercut the Iranian factions seeking more cooperation with the United States.
The bill’s sponsors also argue that Rowhani’s ascendancy will make little difference, because real power lies with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Rowhani has a unique status as a consummate insider (and former nuclear negotiator), with close ties to reformers and conservatives as well as Khamenei.
“He is one of the few who can get authorization from Khamenei” to negotiate seriously, says Roberto Toscano, a former Italian ambassador to Tehran with extensive Iranian contacts. “We should not be overly optimistic,” says Toscano, “but to say nothing has changed is not realistic.”
Moreover, it makes a big difference that the populist Ahmadinejad is no longer in charge of negotiations. He spouted apocalyptic rhetoric that led many, especially in Israel, to believe Iran might drop a nuclear bomb on Israel to hasten the return of the Shiite messiah, or Mahdi.
Whether or not this was Ahmadinejad’s real intention, it helped poison any prospect for talks. Iran’s hostility toward Israel remains unchanged. (At an annual pro-Palestinian celebration last week, Rowhani called the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands “a sore . . . on the body of the Islamic world.”)
But the new leader’s style is very different from his predecessor’s. He is a pragmatist who recognizes that in order to survive, the regime needs to meet the economic needs of its people. And he is part of a regime whose main goal is survival, said Toscano at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. That means not committing certain suicide by bombing Israel, whose nuclear submarines would respond by destroying Tehran.
Still, the Iran vote in Congress was no doubt influenced by Israel’s fear that a centrist Rowhani is really “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” to use the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Yet those who are quick to dismiss any new prospects for negotiations should reflect how the Middle East is changing — in ways that weaken Iran. Shiite Iran’s support of Syria’s bloodthirsty Bashar al-Assad — and the involvement of Iran’s Lebanese proxy, the Hezbollah militia, alongside Assad’s forces — has soured the Sunni Arab world on Tehran.
Even Hamas, the Sunni Palestinian movement funded by Tehran in Gaza, has turned against Tehran. Iran’s archenemy, the Shiite-hating Taliban, is making headway in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida and its affiliates, who also hate Shiites, are also making a comeback in Syria and Iraq. On top of those threats, Tehran faces its biggest challenge: falling world oil prices as massive amounts of U.S. shale gas and oil come on line.
Thus, it needs to focus on the home front. The regional threat from Tehran is shrinking; the global threat is overrated. And a strike on Tehran would only delay, not stop, Iran’s nuclear program anyway. Yet, the congressional drumbeat continues for more sanctions, along with a hostile attitude toward negotiations.
If Iran’s enrichment program continues to develop — despite sanctions — there will be growing pressure on President Obama from Israel, and from some legislators, to contemplate military action. So before the Senate takes up the House bill on tougher sanctions, it’s time to rethink their purpose.
Sanctions, says Toscano, “are useful only if they are instrumental in reaching an agreement, which requires compromise. If there are no negotiations, sanctions can lead to military conflict.”
At a time when circumstances are propitious for talks with Tehran, our leaders shouldn’t box themselves into a war with Iran.