The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sanctions have failed, so what next for Iran?

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The president, in his State of the Union, gave no indication that Syria was a jihadist haven, nor did he let on that it is dragging its heels in coughing up President Bashar al-Assad’s illegal chemical weapons. The Wall Street Journal editorial board reminds us, “On Wednesday Reuters reported how much of Syria’s chemical stockpile has been handed over for destruction: 4.1%. That comes to about 59 tons of chemical weapons surrendered out of a stockpile of 1,433 tons. Oh, and that’s the stockpile that the Bashar Assad regime officially declared. In September we reported that U.S. intelligence believes the regime disclosed only 32 of an estimated 50 chemical sites.”

On Iran, Obama threatened Congress (with a veto of sanctions), not Iran, yet the gap between the West’s demands and the Iranians’ willingness to disgorge its nuclear stockpile and infrastructure is vast.

As to Iran, the president of late has been treating sanctions proponents as enemies while walking on eggshells with the mullahs. That may, at least for now, stem the tide in favor of sanctions but it does not remove the crux of his problem, which is not Congress. The president cannot spin away Iran’s defiance. He cannot deny that the markers laid down by the United Nations, the Senate and even his own government require a dismantling (not pausing) of centrifuges, closing of Fordow and Arak, full compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency inspections and removal of his stockpile. If anything, the sanctions fight highlighted the administration’s dilemma.

Frankly, sanctions had little chance to force Iran to capitulate without the additional threat of U.S. military action. Under Obama, that threat has evaporated. Whether new sanctions are added or not, the international business community already has rushed in to revive Iran’s economy. Iran is emboldened and no longer believes in any U.S. threat. Deterrence has failed — already.

Even if Obama “succeeds” in fending off Congress, his chances of achieving a deal that meets those bare minimum requirement is practically nil and arguably less than those if he had kept the pressure on. He has kicked and kicked the can again, but at the end of six months, with no final deal in sight that remotely meets the West’s conditions, Congress will act. Israel will act. And he — who insisted letting up on sanctions was the way to go — will not have “ended” a war in the Middle East. He’ll have set the stage for one. Israel, with support from many in the West and Congress, will do what it must. The president will not only have laid the conditions for war, but he also will have ceded U.S. leadership — to Israel.