Et Tu, Menendez?

Why Democrats beating Tehran down with additional sanctions and zero enrichment guarantees could backfire, badly.

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."  

In 2004, I spent a week in Tehran talking to officials in the nuclear establishment. Almost all of them, no matter how moderate, found some way of working into the conversation a letter Henry Kissinger is said to have written to the Shah in the mid-1970s encouraging him to pursue nuclear power. The evidence seems to show that in fact Kissinger demanded stringent controls on any nuclear facility, but no matter: The message they conveyed to me was that what was good for the Shah was good for the Ayatollah. Even though, as I was also repeatedly told, Iran had absolutely no wish to develop nuclear weapons, it would never agree to forego nuclear enrichment. The first part may have been false, but I had no reason to doubt the second. Even Menendez conceded in his AIPAC speech that acquiescence to the American demand would spell "the end of the revolution," at least for the hardliners in command.    

The negotiations in Geneva last week appear to have foundered on Iran's insistence that the so-called P5+1 powers explicitly acknowledge Tehran's "right to enrich." Washington and its allies were prepared to allow Iran to continue spinning its centrifuges in order to produce low-enriched fuel, though they seem to have balked at the language Tehran wanted. That problem can probably be solved through some form of constructive ambiguity -- but not, of course, if the P5+1 demands that all enrichment activity stop.

I have no idea why Menendez and other Democrats believe that more pressure will make Iran abandon a core tenet of the revolution and thus undermine their claim to rule. (I asked for an interview, but the New Jersey senator was not available.) Maybe they believe it because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made zero enrichment his own bottom line.

One of the consistently bizarre elements of the whole debate is how Israel's definition of its national security appears to have superseded Washington's. Senate majority leader Harry Reid explained his skepticism about the current round of negotiations, saying, "I hope we can work out something with Iran, but I'm a person who really believes in the state of Israel." So, I think, does Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been visiting Israel since Netanyahu was in short pants. But Kerry may recognize that while Israel would be prepared to go to war -- and to draw the United States into that war -- in order to strip Iran of any vestige of its nuclear capacity, this would be a catastrophe for Washington, which is still digging itself out of the rubble of past military adventures in the region.

With Iran reportedly prepared to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to dispose of its existing stockpile of such fuel in exchange for very modest sanctions relief (and the release of a small fraction of the $50 billion in frozen Iranian assets), diplomats could well reach a first-stage agreement when they reconvene next week. But in order to advance further, Congress and the European Union will have to agree to remove sanctions incrementally as Iran reduces its stock of centrifuges, disables some facilities, and allows intrusive inspection of others. But if Senate Democrats continue to denounce the negotiations as a giveaway -- "wild-eyed hope" rather than "clear-eyed pragmatism," as Menendez puts it -- then the Iranians will recognize that the sanctions relief they demand is an illusion.

Obama, it's true, can invoke national security in order to temporarily waive sanctions. But only Congress can permanently remove them. And Bob Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has drawn up, and threatened to introduce, a bill which would bar the president from waiving sanctions. That might be a Rubicon the Democratic hawks would not cross -- though Menendez did promise AIPAC that "every day in Tehran will be a worse day than the last until the regime foregoes its nuclear ambition."

Barack Obama has dropped, one by one, his dreams of a "transformative" foreign policy. His policy of "mutual respect" in the Middle East has not elevated America in the eyes either of regimes or their peoples. The "reset" with Russia failed when Vladimir Putin returned to power. Syria has gone to hell on his watch. He has achieved far less than he had hoped on nuclear nonproliferation and on climate change. But on Iran, where the consequences of failure are most grave, Obama's policy of patient engagement has been vindicated by events. He now has a partner he might be able to work with, and an Iranian public desperate for relief from sanctions. The path to a solution, though full of obstacles, is clear. This would be a victory, should it come, which the president has fully earned. (And lord knows he needs one.) But with the Ayatollah on one side, and Benjamin Netanyahu and his Democratic chorus on the other, he -- and we -- may not get there. If and when diplomacy gives way to war, let's not forget who to blame.


Terms of Engagement

Washington’s Kid Gloves and Egypt’s Fist

Why has the Obama administration given up on speaking truth to the military rulers in Cairo?

Remember that moving passage in Barack Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo in which the president said, "in order to move forward, we must say openly the things we hold in our hearts, and that too often are said only behind closed doors"? I couldn't help thinking of that as I read Secretary of State John Kerry's agonizingly circumscribed remarks during his own visit to Cairo earlier this week, where he insisted that the administration was pleased with Egypt's progress towards the restoration of democracy, and thus that the decision to temporarily suspend the transfer of weapons -- jet fighters, tanks, helicopters and missiles -- was not meant as a "punishment."

Kerry's trip has not, in general, been long on candor. The secretary was probably not saying what was in his heart when he traveled to Saudi Arabia and answered a question  about whether Saudi women should have the right to drive by awkwardly observing that "it's up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure choices and timing for whatever events." But Saudi Arabia is an implacably authoritarian ally, and diplomacy between Washington and Riyadh has always been governed by polite evasion. Indeed, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal returned the favor by denying that relations between the two states were "dramatically deteriorating." What is new is that the United States now feels compelled to treat Egypt with the kid gloves usually reserved for the Saudis.

The inference I draw from Kerry's delicate toe-dancing is not so much that President Obama has given up on democracy promotion in the Middle East, as is often alleged, as that Egypt has changed in such a way that Washington gains almost nothing by speaking the truth. In 2005, when a previous secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, came to Egypt, she shocked the ruling elite by declaring that "the day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency degrees." But Rice had an audience: the activists who had taken to the streets to protest the autocratic rule of President Hosni Mubarak. And those activists were delighted and emboldened, at least until 2007, when Mubarak sent his thugs into the street to block parliamentary elections, and the White House of President George W. Bush said nothing.

What audience would Kerry have been addressing if he had spoken what one imagines -- what one at least would like to imagine -- was in his heart? Those same liberal activists, having overthrown the dictator whom Rice and Bush had admonished, have collaborated with the military to depose the democratically elected leaders who replaced Mubarak. Such was the liberals' hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood government that they have accepted, at least for now, what looks very much like an autocratic restoration. It's shocking that Kerry said nothing in Cairo about the trial of former president Mohamed Morsy on trumped-up charges of incitement to murder, scheduled to begin the day after Kerry left. But if he had, he would have infuriated both the new regime and its liberal supporters.

In his remarks, Kerry said as often as he could that Egypt's transition to democracy must be "inclusive," which was code for "include Islamists." But it will be no such thing. Two days after Morsy went on trial, a high court in Cairo upheld a decision to ban the Brotherhood -- in a case originally brought by a liberal secular party. Bahaa el-Din, the one senior member of the interim government who has had the temerity to call for "reconciliation" with the Brotherhood, has been shouted down, and now claims to have been misunderstood. Nor, in all likelihood, will that democracy be very democratic, since the military rulers who seized control in the July 3 coup have virtually eliminated press freedom -- the English-language Egyptian press which I read carries only the most barely factual accounts of controversial issues -- and are planning to promulgate a law which gives the Interior Ministry the right to approve of demonstrations in advance, and to cancel or relocate them.

To assert, as Kerry did, that "we need to keep faith with the roadmap and the path ahead to continue the march to democracy" is thus an absurdity. The path Egypt is on is one of military rule with a civilian façade -- Pakistan, circa 2007 -- while embittered supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood seethe. That is a formula for instability, if not chaos. Kerry tried to change the subject by focusing on Egypt's crucial "economic choices," but the country's leaders won't have to make those choices -- so long as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE are prepared to funnel billions of dollars into the treasury. It seems incredible to say so, but right now Egypt looks less likely than either Yemen or Libya to make a transition towards a more liberal and democratic form of government than it had before. Contending groups in both of those countries, and in Tunisia as well, have begun a process of reconciliation, or at least begun to talk about it. In Egypt, the very word is treasonable.

From a strictly aesthetic point of view, it would thus be preferable for Obama administration officials to discard disingenuousness in favor of the full Saudi: "It's up to Egypt to make its own decisions," etc. After all, the United States needs to stay on Egypt's good side in order to ensure immediate access to the Suez Canal, calm relations with Israel and so forth. And there's no reason to believe that Washington has any leverage with Cairo right now. Obama's decision to halt the delivery of those fighter planes, tanks, helicopters, and missiles -- baubles to which Egypt's military is addicted -- simply bounced off the hide of the generals now calling the shots in Cairo. (Egypt's foreign minister has spoken of turning to Russia for arms.) If Egypt has become -- once again -- an autocratic ally, why should Washington bother to pretend otherwise?

The answer is that Egypt is not Saudi Arabia: a people who have earned their freedom in the streets will not continue to passively accept the new military dispensation, especially once the bogeyman of the Brotherhood has lost some of its scare value. The Napoleonic aura of coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will fade, especially if he becomes president and is thus held responsible for the failures of government. If Egyptians take to the streets again to protest against their government, and are once again mowed down by Army bullets or thrown into jail for chanting in Tahrir, they will be looking to the U.S. for support, as they did in 2011. For that reason, it would be a terrible mistake for Washington to cut off all aid to Egypt and to declare the country a lost cause. In fact, the Obama administration should increase targeted economic assistance, whether or not it reduces military aid. But precisely because there is reason to hope for a better future, the United States should hold Egypt to the democratic values of the revolution -- even at a moment when so many Egyptians have lost sight of them.

Diplomacy is not, of course, about saying what is in your heart; it's about saying whatever is most likely to produce the outcome you seek. Right now, nothing America says or does, positive or negative, will do much to produce the outcome it seeks in Egypt. That being so, "mutual respect," to use another expression from Obama's 2009 speech, should dictate greater honesty about Egypt's failures.