With Republicans now sharing the burden of governing in the next Congress, President Obama has an opportunity to define the terms of the Iran debate instead of spending two more years capitulating to a Democratic Congress worried about appearing weak or out of sync with hardliners on the Iran issue.

For a President who ran on the promise of fighting the “smallness” of Washington’s political discourse that is unequipped for the immensity of the challenges America faces, few issues suffer more from that “smallness” than the Iran debate. In Washington, when in doubt, Iran saber rattling always seems to pay–and the implications for our Iran policy could not be more disastrous. Obama had offered the promise of fighting this paradigm and supporting a new strategy of engagement, which is the only effective means to resolve the nuclear issue, address the human rights situation, and create space for pro-democracy activists in Iran.

Unfortunately, instead of fighting the Bush paradigm that rewards policymakers on the basis of bellicosity towards Iran, Obama has by and large perpetuated a political metric that defines success on Iran only in terms of pressure. Only if Obama raises the consequences of the dire alternative to a successful engagement strategy–war with Iran–and stakes out a new path to create his own political space for diplomacy, can the President effectively navigate the new reality in Congress and pursue a successful Iran agenda.

The picture for Obama in Congress is bleak enough, but particularly so on Iran. Bipartisan Iran sanctions advanced in the Democratic Congress imposed significant new restrictions on the President and give the Republicans significant ammunition to undermine Obama. Opportunities to hold the President’s feet to the fire regarding enforcement of unilateral sanctions on China and Russia will not be ignored, and the President will be punished for failing to get “tough enough” on Iran, despite his many efforts to do just that. By failing to realign the metrics for success, and by allowing the outgoing Democratic Congress to undermine his political and policy flexibility, Obama and the Democrats in the 111th Congress have handed Republicans a valuable tool with which to bludgeon the President in the 112th.

Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R-FL), the incoming House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman, has been a consistent Bush-esque Iran demagogue who has fiercely opposed any engagement efforts and, as a strong advocate for the sanctions regime against Cuba, has argued stringently for a similar regime against Iran. She is also an ardent supporter of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a pro-war Iranian Marxist group that, in spite of being designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department, manages to maintain an extremely active presence on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, nearly fifty Republicans endorsed a resolution this past summer expressing support for Israeli military strikes against Iran–signaling a dangerous willingness to take on the President and the US military leadership on the issue of Israeli strikes and potential war. While Ros Lehtinen has not signed on to that resolution, Dan Burton (R-IN) did, and he may become the Middle East Subcommittee Chairman in the next Congress.

Meanwhile, while Democrats will retain a narrow majority in the Senate, Obama’s old seat will be filled by Mark Kirk, a perennial Iran saber-rattler who played a leading role in advancing sanctions that he argued should punish ordinary Iranians. Evan Bayh’s senate seat will be reclaimed by Dan Coats (R-IN) who has warned that, for Iran, “the only option now is potential military action if we’re going to stop this.”

The Senate scenario is troubling given that it took an eleventh hour effort by the administration, working with John Kerry, to halt an effort by Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-TX) to sneak Iran sanctions through the chamber last December. Kyl attempted to circumvent regular procedure to pass the bill and undermine Obama’s outreach at the UN to assemble multilateral sanctions. While the administration’s efforts to hold off Kyl were successful then, the stakes for procedural games will be even higher now under a razor-thin Senate majority.

But Obama’s troubles with the next Congress on Iran may come from his own caucus as well. It has been Democrats who have offered new sanctions legislation that threaten to consign Obama to a “pressure-only track” by further eliminating his flexibility and closing opportunities for engagement. Among these proposals, Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA) introduced a bill just prior to the elections that would remove the President’s ability to approve the export of civilian aircraft parts for humanitarian purposes to Iran. This would revoke yet another tool the President has for negotiations, not to mention the humanitarian implications that denying spare parts has for the innocent Iranians who must take to the skies, despite Iran’s abysmal civilian flight record. But Sherman also subscribes to the notion that sanctions must punish ordinary Iranians.

To pro-war demagogues, it is of little consequence that Obama is the first US President to implement unilateral Congressional Iran sanctions against a foreign company. While Democrats may tout this as evidence of Obama’s success on Iran, it is a pyrrhic victory. In spending the past year focused on sanctions, the President failed to seize opportunities to capitalize on negotiations that could have created measurable progress on the Iran issue–including the removal of significant stockpiles of uranium from Iran, a potential reduction in Iran’s enrichment levels, and, most importantly, the opening for ongoing negotiations that hold the only opportunity for success. Instead, the administration and the Democrats have been stuck with touting the suffering of ordinary people in Iran as evidence of successful “pressure” against the country.

Some, like Sarah Palin, Elliott Abrams, and even David Broder, have advocated that the best approach the President can take would be to abandon his principles and run to the right of Republicans on Iran. Broder suggested the President should cynically spend the next two years “orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs” to boost the US economy. Palin has suggested that a sound reelection strategy for Obama would be to bomb Iran. None of these proposals offer solutions to our problems, but are endemic to a broken political discourse that Obama must fight head on.

The lesson from the last two years on Iran vis-a-vis Congress is that going along with the hawkish approach has earned little for Obama domestically. Far from creating political openings to pursue real progress for a potential peaceful resolution, an absence of strong Presidential leadership has generated just enough political space to ensure that engagement opportunities are suffocated–not just talks, but promises like the licensing of internet software and hardware, and the expansion of educational exchanges for Iranian students.

Because Obama has failed to set the terms of the debate on Iran, the administration finds itself trapped. Even the upcoming talks with Iran are now being construed by White House spokespersons as “pressure”. The so-called “dual track” approach has ebbed into an approach focused solely on pressure, because this is supposed to be politically palatable. But if Obama is standing behind a podium in September 2012 across from Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin, and the criteria for a successful Iran policy is ‘who can be most confrontational’, the candidate willing to spew the most insane, bellicose, and counterproductive Iran tirade wins the debate. And no matter how far Obama is willing to run in this direction, he will face a challenger who is more than willing to run even further.

In failing to establish any alternative criteria for progress on the Iran issue other than pressure, the administration risks continuing to perpetuate the Bush paradigm on Iran and accepting a measurement for success that, regardless of reality, only plays into the hands of Obama’s pro-war, anti-engagement opponents. It would be disastrous for Obama to embrace the 2002 Democratic foreign policy strategy, when they adopted a Bush-light approach and supported the Iraq war out of fear. It wasn’t until Democrats developed a strong message against the Iraq war in 2006 that they reclaimed Congress. And it wasn’t until a presidential candidate staked out his own paradigm and established his own political space through leadership on his anti Iraq-war principles that ultimately a Democrat reclaimed the White House.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine’s Middle East Channel




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