James Traub writes: If you squeeze a bully’s b — sorry, fingers — really hard, and he buckles, then you keep squeezing until you bring him to his knees, right? That, in any case, is the logic which lies behind the bipartisan revolt against President Barack Obama’s diplomacy with Iran. In an op-ed in USA Today, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained why he had defied the administration’s urgent request that Congress hang fire on further sanctions: “Iran is on the ropes because of its intransigent policies and our collective will…. Tougher sanctions will serve as an incentive for Iran to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program.”
It’s hardly an absurd proposition. Menendez, one of the leading Democratic Iran hawks, also recently told an AIPAC meeting that when he began his drive to impose sanctions — a drive for which the White House might want to claim a little bit of credit as well — he was told that force would never bring the Iranians to the table. I’m not sure who, besides Flynt Leverett, argued against coercion, but it’s an unarguable fact that sanctions on Iran’s oil sales and financial system, imposed by the European Union as well as Congress, have forced the Iranians to take the nuclear negotiations more seriously than they have in the past, and may even have helped elect the moderate president Hassan Rouhani.
So why is the White House insisting that Menendez and his colleagues on the left and right are provoking “a march to war”? The obvious answer, furnished by Secretary of State John Kerry, among others, is that Iran would view additional sanctions imposed in the middle of the most delicate negotiations as a sign of bad faith. More to the point, a punitive response by the West would undermine the moderates on Rouhani’s team, and prove to Iranian hard-liners — including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei — that the United States and its allies are an intransigent adversary intent on humiliating Iran and ultimately overthrowing its Islamic regime.
Obama’s critics have a riposte to this claim: new sanctions won’t kick in for another three to six months, and thus will function as an effective Sword of Damocles while talks continue. That’s a pretty risky gamble, especially because anything that prolongs the negotiations gives Iran more time to enrich uranium and reach a point of no return at which it could produce enough fuel to fill a bomb.
But that’s not the biggest problem with the squeeze-’em-till-they-drop crowd. The reason why Menendez and others really are marching on a path to war is that they are demanding an outcome which Iran manifestly will not accept: zero enrichment. As Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, puts it, “This is a strategy based upon hope that is not supported by the evidence of Iranian actions over the past decade, its past statements, or common sense.” [Continue reading…]