President Obama speaks by telephone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
(Pete Souza for the White House via Agence France-Press)

Few Iran watchers outside the State Department and White House think the administration is on the right track with regard to Iran. The latest sign that the president is out of sync even with his own party was a speech given by Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (N. J.) in New York City on Monday.

Menendez directly challenged the notion that we should let up on sanctions based on verbal niceties: “The core components of any deal are actually relatively simple. First, Iran must freeze and dismantle its nuclear weapons program and, second, Iran must demonstrate — through the use of robust inspection and verification regimes — that it in fact is complying. For our part, if Iran concludes a verifiable deal, we will lift the economic sanctions that have led to a 60 percent reduction in the value of its currency and which are costing Iran $5 billion a month.” He reiterated that Congress has no interest in relaxing sanctions absent concrete action by the Iranians. He gave the administration’s suggestion the back of the hand:

To put it simply, while we welcome Iran’s diplomatic overtures and their willingness to come to the table — we cannot allow the Iranians to buy time, avoid sanctions, and continue the march toward a nuclear weapons capability.

This is not the time to loosen sanctions. We can’t want a deal more than the Iranians and we can’t be so anxious for a deal that we weaken our hand at a moment when we hold the best cards.

When Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, our lead negotiator, appeared before my committee before she left for the talks in Geneva, I had an opportunity to express publicly, as well as privately, and will express again today to all of you — what I have said many times before: In my view, the hard, punishing and far-reaching sanctions we enacted against Iran have been successful and have been the single most powerful tool in bringing Iran to the table and bringing us to this pivotal point.

At most, new sanctions could be suspended if Iran suspends (subject to verification) its own nuclear weapons program, Menendez said. His perception is accurate that Iran’s calculus has to include the regime’s potential destruction. (“We need to convince him that the risk and threat to his power is internal, that the Iranian people won’t tolerate the sanctions any longer and that the benefit of becoming a nuclear state is outweighed by the political risk.”)

Unlike the administration, Menendez has a firm grasp on who holds the reins in Tehran. (“What has made the negotiations difficult is Iran’s refusal to concede that it has a nuclear program at all, its insistence that it has a right to enrich uranium, and the fact that ownership of the nuclear file in Iran is held not by the new president, but remains in the hands of the Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.”) And he understands all too well that Iran is playing the long game:

The fundamental question for Iran isn’t whether they should or should not pursue nuclear weapons — that decision has been made — but whether they can continue to withstand the economic pressure in order to achieve their ultimate political goal of becoming a nuclear weapons state which, in their view, would establish Iran and Shias as a hegemonic superpower in the Middle East. I believe that only if the political risk is real will Iran actually cut a deal.

This sort of hard-nosed assessment is entirely missing from Wendy Sherman’s reports and the president’s statements.

As former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams pointed out, another clear sign that the Rouhani “moderation” is a hoax to lull the West is the mullahs’ crackdown on human rights. He explains: “What’s the relationship between the internal situation and the nuclear file? Simply this: We are fooling ourselves if we see in Rouhani a reformer who wishes to change the Iranian system, move toward democracy, and abandon the nuclear weapons program. That ‘Rouhani narrative’ was carefully constructed to ensnare Western diplomats, officials, and journalists. We have no excuse if we fall for it.” The bigger risk however is that the administration understands precisely with whom it is dealing and wants desperately to reach a fig-leaf agreement that will obviate the need for U.S. action.

It is for that reason that the voices of Menendez and other Democrats, former officials and outside experts are so critical. As an official of a pro-Israel organization put it, “All of the diplomatic happy talk cannot distract us from the grim reality that the Iranians are rushing to nuclear break-out capability. The issue is no longer 20 percent or 3.5 percent enrichment but rather Iran on the verge of having 100 percent of a program than can produce nuclear weapons. That is why more pressure and more sanctions are imperative.”

The White House, left to its own devices, will try to stall sanctions and try to portray empty rhetoric as evidence of diplomatic progress. The only “progress” is Iran’s toward a nuclear weapon. For that reason, both parties in Congress, our European friends, the Israelis and independent experts should keep President Obama’s feet to the fire. The Syria capitulation was humiliating; an Iranian capitulation would be devastating.