The winners and losers of US policy on Iran

The same week Obama declared an end to the Iraq War, Congress brought the US closer to confrontation with Iran.

 Some analysts believe Iran could interpret a full oil embargo as an ‘act of war’ [GALLO/GETTY]

In the same week that President Obama declared an end to the Iraq War, Congress brought Americans closer to confrontation with Iran. The whimper with which America’s presence in Iraq ended was also drowned out by Republican presidential hopefuls beating war drums. This is America nearly four years into Obama’s leadership. The President may have begun his term by trying to pursue a different path with Iran, but his acquiescence to domestic lobbying has made the results of his policies indistinguishable from his predecessor. Ironically, his attempts to appease pro-Israel advocates have only invited more onerous demands while leaving would-be supporters disillusioned.

Perhaps more disheartening than the shattered hopes of millions who believed in Obama’s campaign promises is the blowback. Iran’s government is becoming more authoritarian and defiant as political infighting rages. Its position has also been strengthened by America’s Mideast policies. The ouster of Saddam Hussein has placed forces friendly to it in power in Baghdad. Meanwhile, US competitors benefit from deals resulting from sanctions, while American officials depend on countries like Saudi Arabia to provide essential support for their initiatives.

As in Tehran, hostile measures against political adversaries are also becoming the norm in Washington. On December 14, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Iran Threat Reductions Act (HR 1905). An amendment to it proposed by hawk Ileana Ros-Lehtinen essentially bars US officials from even speaking to the Iranians with minor exceptions. Several analysts have written that the measure will enhance the threat of war. Intelligence veteran Paul Pillar warned in November that the restriction could block peaceful means of conflict resolution over Iran’s nuclear program and “any diplomacy to keep US-Iranian incidents or crises…from spinning out of control”.

Preventing unnecessary catastrophes was exactly what recently retired Admiral Mike Mullen was trying to do when he reiterated calls for engagement with Iran. In September he strongly recommended that the US explore “any channel [of communication] that’s open”, adding that “even in the darkest days of the Cold War,” America “had links to the Soviet Union”. Even Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta felt compelled to explain why war should be avoided to a pro-Israel audience at the Saban Center in Washington earlier this month. “The consequence could be that we would have an escalation that would take place that would not only involve many lives, but…consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret,” he said.

‘Sabotage diplomacy’

But as in the run-up to the Iraq War, the political leadership is ignoring sceptical voices regardless of their provenance. Hawkish measures are being furthered at an increasing pace. Last week the administration implied that it would sign into law sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank as part of the National Defence Authorisation Act. Representatives from 11 countries dubbed as the “coalition of like-minded countries” are meeting in Rome on Tuesday to also discuss implementing a complete oil embargo. Analysts have written that the Iranians could interpret these moves as “an act of war”.

HR 1905 has been opposed by a group of anti-war US organisations who fear it will “sabotage diplomacy”, including the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). According to NIAC policy director Jamal Abdi, the measures will “punish ordinary people, raise gas prices, and bring the US.and Iran closer to war”.

Top American businesses have also voiced opposition. USA*Engage, an influential coalition of American companies and trade associations said last week that HR 1905 would work against US efforts to build a multilateral coalition on Iran. “Votes like these may satisfy domestic political considerations,” a USA*Engage statement said, “but they actually weaken American leadership and have the potential to unravel the calibrated, multilateral consensus that has been achieved.”

History repeats itself and with Iran it’s hardly the work of supernatural forces. In 1996, a similar battle raged between elements of the “Israel lobby” and USA*Engage, which opposed harsh sanctions against Iraq and Iran. The lobby prevailed, with parts of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act being written by members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). This was confessed to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg by AIPAC staffer Steven Rosen who would later be indicted for espionage after being accused of giving classified US intelligence to Israel.

AIPAC’s victory was also a boon for the Russians and Chinese who were able to secure lucrative contracts in the sanctioned countries without competition. The main loser was America’s economy.

It’s no coincidence that many of the same groups that agitated for war with Iraq are also pushing America closer to confrontation with Iran. The ultra-hawkish Foundation for Defence of Democracies does this by spreading their ideas in influential newspapers and informing key congressional committees. Washington Post hawk Jennifer Rubin regularly quotes the FDD when writing about Iran. In August, Mark Dubowitz told her that to “squeeze the regime” the US should “target Iran’s crude oil sales, designate the Central Bank of Iran, and sanction the Chinese, Indian and other companies that continue to do business in Iran’s energy sector.” He also claimed Americans didn’t “have time” for diplomatic measures and argued that “a comprehensive Iran policy” must include “the real threat of force”.

The hawks circle

Dubowitz’s Iraq war hawk colleague Reuel Marc Gerecht is less restrained with his language. In October he told two house subcommittees at a hearing about the alleged “Iranian plot” to assassinate the Saudi ambassador that the US would be “asking for it” if they didn’t “shoot someone” in response.

AIPAC has also been pushing for “strangling” sanctions against Iran for years. Last week journalist Philip Weiss blogged that the unanimous senate passing of the Kirk-Menendez amendment incorporating Iran Central Bank sanctions into the National Defense bill highlighted the pro-Israel “pressure” Obama faces. “AIPAC famously can get 70 Senators’ signatures on a napkin inside of a day, as Goldberg himself reported,” Weiss wrote, but “[t]his time AIPAC got 100 against Obama!”

State department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the US was studying how to apply sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank “while causing minimum disruption” for its allies. But she did not explain how that’s possible when enforcement requires a US financial ban on anyone who does business with it. And while Asian allies like Japan are scrambling for ways to cope with the US-led initiatives, China and Russia are looking forward to exploiting them. 

Iran could respond to strangulating pressure by blockading the world’s most important oil-shipping route, the Strait of Hormuz. But it could also gain from higher oil prices caused by a reduction in global supply. Earlier this month, State Department undersecretary Wendy Sherman said there’s “absolutely a risk that…the price of oil would go up, which would mean that Iran would in fact have more money to fuel its nuclear ambitions, not less.”

Saudi Arabia plays a key role in countering that consequence and it still hasn’t commented on an Iranian claim that the Saudis would not boost production to offset the effect of decreased Iranian exports. Despite their headline-dominating tensions, Iran joined the Saudis in Riyadh for talks last week. Both countries also prefer high prices; in October Saudi Arabia inadvertently pleased the Iranians when they cut oil output by four per cent so prices wouldn’t fall below $100 a barrel.

We’ll see how the Saudis act this time when there’s increased US pressure. But now America is also depending on an economically struggling European Union to stop purchasing Iranian crude. Oil prices have also been rising since last week and economists are warning that costs may surge if Iran’s supply is halted. All this while Obama continues to be criticised by pro-Israel hawks despite submitting to their pressure.

The President’s schizophrenic Iran policy seems to have landed America in a no-win situation as a threatened Iran feels compelled to acquire nuclear weapon capability. While Iran insists it’s “not really worried” about more “strangling” sanctions, it could accordingly slip into the “irrational” role that’s constantly attributed to it. Even before post-war instability has died down in Iraq, conditions are ripe for yet another calamitous confrontation in the Middle East.

Jasmin Ramsey is an Iranian-born journalist and co-editor of Lobe Log and PULSE Media.

Follow Jasmin on Twitter @JasminRamsey

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.