U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman in Geneva in November. (Martial Trezzini/Associated Press) U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman in Geneva in November. (Martial Trezzini/Associated Press)

In a briefing with senators this week, Wendy Sherman, the administration’s Iran negotiator, failed to convince critics there is reason to hold off on sanctions. Even worse, she gave the distinct impression of someone with no bottom line, precisely the fear of skeptics who think the president is looking for any deal as an excuse not to act against a regime bent on getting a nuclear weapon.

The ostensible reason for the administration’s opposition to the Senate’s Nuclear Free Iran Act is that any sanctions — even ones that wouldn’t go into effect until the six-month interim agreement ran out with no final deal — would spook the Iranians, end the talks and send us on a “path to war.” Now, there’s an administration begging for Iran to stay and make a deal, really anything that it can label as a diplomatic win.

In defending the administration, however, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) gave the game away. First, he objected to even scheduling a sanctions vote at the end of six months, a sly suggestion by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) which revealed that the administration is no longer behind its own sanctions policy; the Obama team is in full appeasement mode. Second, Levin let it be known that the real issue is the definition of a final deal. The Hill quotes him as saying, “We shouldn’t be able, I don’t think, to dictate the terms. I don’t think we should prejudge what’s in a final agreement.” The terms he alludes to are the very terms multiple United Nations resolutions have set down. Is that now crimping the administration’s style? Which part is now an imposition on the administration: demanding the heavy water plutonium plant be destroyed? Removing Iran’s illicit enrichment program and sending its stockpile of enriched material out of the country?

Now, in Levin’s eyes, U.N. resolutions, with full monitoring and full compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency inspection requirements, boils down to a suggestion. That simply confirms what Obama administration critics fear: A deal is not to be what we can demand to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear blackmailer but whatever Iran will give us. Both sanctions and the threat of force are no longer a hammer to get Iran to dismantle its program and ship out its enriched material. The administration won’t say that publicly; it would create a furor. Instead, it rebuffs attempts to remind the public and Iran of our previously stated demands. Senators who have been working to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability are rattled:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said the Senate needs to vote quickly on a bill calling for new sanctions if Iran won’t sign on to a deal that bans it from enriching uranium within the next six months. He said countries around the world were already sending commercial delegations to Iran and creating a looming threat of new U.S. sanctions would temper their enthusiasm.

“I’m more disturbed now than ever,” he said. “The end-game being contemplated is not even in the ballpark” of what he wants to see.

The president, as Robert Gates’s memoir confirmed, lacks steel in his spine. He occasionally may talk a good game, but his foreign policy is designed to avoid confrontation with foes, even at the expense of giving up vital national security interests. He’d rather give in than stand tall. This message is being communicated loud and clear to the Iranians (in case they had any doubt after his Syria debacle).