How did we go from a position of strength on Iran (sanctions in place, the U.N. Security Council on board, Congress giving the administration leverage) to a position where Iran has gotten sanctions relief, is now threatening to walk out and the president and our allies are openly arguing?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press)

Let’s begin with the route to Geneva. Some cynics say the administration moved to throw together a deal in an effort to block potential Israel action. Others surmise that after coming within a whisker of being compelled to act militarily in Syria, President Obama had no appetite to be boxed into a similar dilemma with Iran (military action or a free pass on WMD’s). What better way than kicking the can down the road — to buy time so he need not act — than an interim deal? And that’s where the trouble started, or rather continued. Iran saw weakness on our part in Syria and sensed desperation in the Geneva talks. They could push for a one-sided deal and turn down the flame boiling under them in the form of sanctions. Make the deal favorable enough and there would be no need to “cheat” — the deal itself would be a steal.  Iran could get brownie points for compliance while keeping its centrifuges, continuing enrichment, maintaining Fordow and Arak and proceeding with research, ballistic weapons work and weaponization. With a deal this good there is no need for cheating.

And then along come our allies and Congress, appalled by the lame bargaining and all too aware that without sanctions looming after six months businesses will rush in, the Iranians will “make progress” but no deal and the administration will be back pleading for more time, citing the sterling record of compliance with the interim deal. What Obama is doing is taking away the Hobson’s choice the West wants to present Iran: Give up your nuclear weapons or watch your economy and regime crumble. The incentive to do a significant deal and do it quickly is lessened when the sanctions flame is turned down and we encourage business to expand dealings with Iran since there is no threat of sanctions hanging over the country.

Think of it this way: If the Obama administration had left Bashar al-Assad in possession with all his weapons and merely sent in inspectors to make sure the promise not to use or make more chemical weapons was enforced, there is no way that could have been passed off as a serious move. Allowing Iran to remain in a comparable position AND get sanctions relief  has flabbergasted allies and members of both parties in Congress.

This is why so many in Congress want to act now to put in place a sanctions guillotine at the end of the six months interim deal. In order to affect the course of negotiations and Iran’s appreciation of the choice that awaits it, the sanctions need to be passed now, even though they’d have no effect before the six months are out. The Obama administration resists because Iran now can threaten to walk, putting Obama back staring at the abyss. It is a measure of how weak is his bargaining position that Obama would reject measures to strengthen his hand for fear his negotiating partner will leave. This isn’t negotiation; it is now blackmail.

If we could wind the clock back, imagine this scenario: Obama acts on his red line. Iran now comes running to us for a deal to avoid either U.S. or Israeli action and to relieve the grip of sanctions. Then you might have seen an interim deal in which we get Arak and Fordow dismantled, significant amounts of  enriched material shipped out of Iran and centrifuges destroyed. It is incomplete but Iran is actually set back. Moreover, Israel and the United States keep —  publicly at least — a united front. In such a situation some relaxation of sanctions might be understandable.

How then do we get back to the position in which we have the upper hand and Iran sees that choice between the regime’s survival and its nuclear program? We could try to make our military threat credible, but who believes Obama at this point? The only option, I would suggest, is to call Iran’s bluff, pass sanctions that will act as a sword hanging over Iran at the end of six months and then present a clear and united front on our demands. (Here again Obama seems to have given up leverage. Why can’t Iran be forced to give up enrichment? Because it won’t do it, absent a threat to the regime.) Fortunately that is precisely what is occurring. National Journal reports:

A bipartisan group of senators will soon introduce legislation that would level new sanctions against Iran, defying pleas from President Obama for Congress to wait while the administration works toward a comprehensive deal.

Lawmakers are circulating legislation to impose additional sanctions that would kick in after the six-month negotiating window to reach a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program runs out, or if Iran fails to hold up its end of the bargain in the interim.

The exact timing of the legislation’s introduction will be largely up to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who is leading the bipartisan sanctions effort with Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill. . . . Introducing the bill before the break—and thus teeing it up for action when the Senate reconvenes in January—would signal a bold act of defiance against the administration, which was still begging lawmakers this week to sit back and wait to see whether a comprehensive agreement can be reached.

The administration is wrong to look upon sanctions as a “vote of no confidence” as one of its spinners put it. In this Congress, the administration and our allies should work in concert to regain leverage. It is only then that a peaceful resolution can be obtained. Otherwise, Obama will be left staring at the abyss or waiting for the fallout from Israeli action. In either case he will not have “ended” war; he’ll have made it inevitable.