Obama’s Iran choice

Instead of choosing between war or sanctions, which would be a political lose-lose, the US president should negotiate.

AIPAC obama
Israeli lobbyists such as AIPAC can significantly influence – even dictate – US policy on Iran [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – An article in Tuesday’s New York Times suggests that there is a method to the madness of the Republican presidential candidates’ hawkish rhetoric on Iran. I had thought that the reason all the Republican candidates (with the exception of Ron Paul) are such noisy warmongers is because that is their natural proclivity – and because it pleases donors (such as Sheldon Adelson, Newt Gingrich’s big campaign funder) who base their political choices on Binyamin Netanyahu’s desires.

But Times reporter Mark Landler suggests that one of the results of this year’s conveniently timed Iran crisis is to present President Barack Obama with a choice of two options, either of which the GOP could successfully exploit to defeat him in the election.

As Landler points out:

In late June, when the campaign is in full swing, Mr Obama will have to decide whether to take action against countries, including some staunch allies, if they continue to buy Iranian oil through its central bank.

After fierce lobbying by the White House, which opposed this hardening in the sanctions that have been its main tool in pressuring Tehran, Congress agreed to modify the legislation to give Mr Obama leeway to delay action if he concludes the clampdown would disrupt the oil market. He may also invoke a waiver to exempt any country from sanctions based on national security considerations.

Under normal circumstances, a president’s decision to invoke a national security waiver on any foreign policy matter is hard to challenge. In this case, the president’s concern that imposing new sanctions would cause oil prices to soar (and disrupt economic recovery) would be good reason to pass on the latest congressional sanctions law.

But the political consequences of waiving could be dire.

Remember, the sanctions law in question is a creation of AIPAC and has been at the top of its agenda during this entire Congress. If Obama waives it, Netanyahu would use the media to make sure that his displeasure was known. The lobby, the Republican presidential candidate and even many of AIPAC’s Democratic cutouts on Capitol Hill would all scream bloody murder.

Senator Mark Kirk (Republican-Illinois), perhaps the member of Congress closest to AIPAC, told the Times that he would not look kindly on a waiver – and neither would the lobby.

“The first waiver would trigger a whole lot of other waiver applications, potentially gutting the policy… The pro-Israel community would not want a gutting of the sanctions,” he said.

But what if Obama just takes the path of least political resistance and imposes the sanctions as AIPAC wants?

Then, oil prices rise.

According to the Times: “Already, Iran’s leaders are maneuvering to drive up oil prices, whether to signal that sanctions could bring repercussions, or to mitigate the effects of reduced sales. Iran’s threat to shut off the Strait of Hormuz, through which a fifth of the world’s oil passes, sent prices soaring this month.”

The article also quoted Stuart Eizenstat, a former top official at the Treasury and State Department who helped devise our Iran policy during the Clinton administration. According to Eizenstat, “sanctions could harm the economy and his [Obama’s] re-election chances”.

In other words, Obama will likely be harmed politically no matter which way he goes on sanctions.

Why is it relatively uncontroversial to negotiate with the Taliban… but the idea of talking to Iran is considered beyond the pale?

Of course, the sanctions issue is just a subset of the larger “war or no war” question. The same political forces that support “crippling” sanctions (which may cripple us, our allies and ordinary Iranian citizens more than the Iranian regime) also favour keeping the war option “on the table” in case our efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program fail.

As is the case with sanctions, there are two options. One is to go to war, a policy that would tear the country (and especially the Democratic Party) apart in an election year. The other is to try to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear program but, if that fails, simply accept an Iran with a nuclear capability and “contain” it. That is what we have done with North Korea and Pakistan and did for many decades with the Soviet Union. That course would infuriate the lobby.

Another political lose-lose.

Fortunately, there is a third course, which applies to both the sanctions and the war questions: we can negotiate.

Writing in The Atlantic, Robert Wright, a foreign policy expert, suggests a way out of the current deadlock would be to establish a nuclear-free Middle East:

The idea is that Israel and Iran would open themselves up to highly intrusive inspections – of their declared nuclear facilities and of any suspicious undeclared sites – and other nations in the region would agree to monitoring as well. As Israel became assured that there were no nuclear weapons programs afoot in the region, it would gradually reduce its nuclear stockpile until, years or even decades from now, it had no nuclear weapons – but could live secure in the knowledge that none of its adversaries had them either. (Israel might preserve “breakout capacity” – the ability to produce a nuke in a matter of months.)

Wright goes on to say that the main objection to this plan is the belief that Israel would never accept it. But according to a poll conducted by Israel’s Dahaf Institute (an equivalent of the Gallup organisation) and cited in a New York Times piece by Steven Kull and Shibley Telhami, that is simply not true.

[W]hen asked whether it would be better for both Israel and Iran to have the bomb, or for neither to have it, 65 per cent of Israeli Jews said neither. And a remarkable 64 per cent favoured the idea of a nuclear-free zone, even when it was explained that this would mean Israel giving up its nuclear weapons. A clear majority also bought into the idea of opening Israel’s and Iran’s nuclear facilities to “a system of full international inspections”.

The same poll finds that only 43 per cent of Jewish Israelis support a military strike on Iran, although 90 per cent assume Iran will eventually develop the bomb.

The nuclear-free option is worth pursuing, as is every possible alternative to war. President Obama should start the process by reaching out to Iran quietly, with the single goal of avoiding war, reducing tensions and ending the threats and counter-threats. It is possible he is already doing that, although the White House (with an eye or two on AIPAC) is denying it.

One last point: Why is it relatively uncontroversial to negotiate with the Taliban – who harboured the terrorists who killed 3,000 US citizens on September 11, 2001, and who have terrorised millions of Afghans for decades – but the idea of talking to Iran is considered beyond the pale?

The answer should be obvious. AIPAC and its congressional cutouts go wild at the thought of negotiating with Iran (or Hamas, for that matter) but are relatively indifferent to the Taliban who, of course, are far from Israel.

So we can talk to the thugs of the Taliban to bring about some sort of settlement. But we can’t even consider talking to the government of Iran.

What a shameful way to conduct foreign policy.

MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJayRosenberg

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