Yet another round of Iran sanctions is coming before the House Foreign Affairs Committee tomorrow morning and could be sent to the Senate in a matter of weeks. But while the bill is supposedly an escalation of sanctions against the Iranian regime, in reality these are sanctions against the U.S. President.
The "Iran Threat Reduction Act" would actually make it illegal for a U.S. official to speak to Iranian officials unless the President issues a special waiver and provides Congress a 15-day heads up.
The bill also weakens the President's authority to waive sanctions -- including eliminating a humanitarian waiver that is supposed to allow for repairs of civilian aircraft so that more ordinary Iranians don't die in plane crashes (over 1,000 people have died in Iranian plane crashes in the past decade). So much for standing with the Iranian people.
And, the bill codifies into law all of the presidential sanctions in place against Iran -- meaning that if Obama or any future president wants to use the easing of sanctions as leverage to press for Iran to accept safeguards on its nuclear program, he will have to first ask Congress (and the lobbies that hold sway there) for its permission.
If placing limits on who he can speak with and what permission he needs to conduct foreign policy sounds like the President is being grounded by Congress, that's because he is (no word on whether Congress will take away the President's text messaging privileges too).
That's because, as President Obama acknowledged to the BBC last year, early efforts to utilize diplomacy with Iran came with significant "political cost" because Americans are "understandably wary of any dealings with the Iranian government."
Even though the U.S. has only held two official meetings with Iran since Obama took office, opponents of engagement who prefer a military approach to Iran will never forgive Obama for pledging during the 2008 campaign to decisively break from the Bush foreign policy and utilize engagement. Now Obama's policy is looking a lot like Bush's, but his opponents continue to attack.
This latest sanctions bill is transparently driven by groups who lobbied for it, including American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) and Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), who are helping build a wall of sanctions one legislative brick at a time to prevent any future diplomatic initiatives with Iran.
Ironically, these sanctions are being sold as an alternative to war -- a "last best chance" to solve the Iran issue diplomatically before sending in the bombers. But these measures are so aggressively anti-diplomacy and so dramatically reduce the President's leverage at the negotiating table (should we ever get back there), that they leave no room for diplomacy.
This latest attack on engagement should be called out as dangerously misguided, but few in the political system have the gall to take on the powerful interests driving this policy, especially heading into an election year.
It took Admiral Mike Mullen -- who throughout his tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned against the folly of war with Iran -- to publicly fight for engagement with Iran before he left office last month. Mullen warned that the lack of communication with Iran was a threat to U.S.national security and to troops in the field. He called for the U.S. to engage Iran by any means necessary. "I'm talking about any channel that's open," he said, including a "hotline" proposal to ensure that, were there to be an accidental confrontation in the Persian Gulf, it wouldn't rapidly escalate into all-out war.
For their part, the White House still claims they are open to engaging Iran and that sanctions are designed to press Iran back to the negotiating table to put safeguards on the nuclear program. But beyond sanctions that are becoming increasingly broad and intransigent, the White House is doing nothing to actively pursue talks.
In fact, the President has toughened his stance and his advisors have even committed to pursuing the sanctions "nuclear option" against Iran's central bank. How the White House does this responsibly without spiking gas prices and costing U.S. jobs by taking Iran's oil exports off of the market is still a mystery.
Unless the President and those who support a diplomatic rather than a military endgame with Iran push back, we will continue to see a wall of sanctions erected against Iran that will make war not just an option, but an inevitability. Obama was supposed to end the Bush policy and take us off of the trajectory to war with Iran, but with a little scolding from Congress and the pro-war lobbies, it now looks like the Barack Obama of 2008 has been put on time out.