The best news on the Iran dilemma in quite some time drew little notice yesterday. It came in the form of a written statement from Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.):
As co-authors of bipartisan sanctions laws that compelled Iran to the negotiating table, we believe that a good deal will dismantle, not just stall, Iran’s illicit nuclear program and prevent Iran from ever becoming a threshold nuclear weapons state. This will require stringent limits on nuclear-related research, development and procurement, coming clean on all possible military dimensions (PMD) issues and a robust inspection and verification regime for decades to prevent Iran from breaking-out or covertly sneaking-out. Gradual sanctions relaxation would only occur if Iran strictly complied with all parts of the agreement. If a potential deal does not achieve these goals, we will work with our colleagues in Congress to act decisively, as we have in the past.
That confirms what we suspected: When freed from the grip of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate can and is likely to move on a bipartisan basis to try to block any rotten Iran deal, stiffen the president’s spine and up the ante on sanctions if no acceptable deal is reached. That in turn may incentivize the administration to take stronger measures in lieu of drifting into a policy of containment.
It is obvious that the United States has frittered away its bargaining position, given Iran a sense of impunity and made the chance of a satisfactory deal nearly impossible. The Jerusalem Post reports:
“Deep gaps” remain between world powers and Iran over its nuclear program, a Russian official said on Wednesday, as negotiations intensified toward a November 24 deadline. But speaking from Muscat, Oman, where the negotiators have converged for several days after basing their talks in Vienna, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov expressed optimism that a deal could be reached by the deadline . . . . But Ryabkov’s optimism came as Tehran confirmed the government had tested a new centrifuge that could speed uranium enrichment, fueling the infrastructure with gas, in possible violation of an international agreement.
The best one can hope for is that Obama listens to the bipartisan hue and cry about a bad deal, holds firm and then accedes to increase the pressure on Iran so that there will be an incentive for the country to give up its nuclear ambitions. (Consider how strange is our dilemma: We must hope Congress forces Obama to accede to sticking with his own policy.) That may seem hard to imagine these days. Once convinced that Obama is a pushover, Iran may cease to take him seriously, and the West will be hard-pressed to recover its credibility. But Obama’s former Iran adviser Dennis Ross is fond of saying that to regain credibility all the United States needs to do is change its behavior. In a report co-authored by Ross and former ambassador Eric Edelman, they recommended a number of specific steps:
To peacefully prevent a nuclear Iran, American policymakers must use all available instruments of coercive diplomacy to restore credibility to their mantra that the United States is keeping all options on the table. They must do this promptly and resolutely. The Obama Administration can undertake several mutually-reinforcing steps to bolster its leverage at the negotiating table: conditioning further sanctions relief on dramatic and verifiable rollback of Iran’s nuclear program; working more closely with Congress on negotiating and implementing a final deal; augmenting the credibility of both the U.S. and Israeli military options; improving dialogue with regional allies; and interdicting clandestine Iranian arms exports.
It is too much to hope that Obama would take even stronger action, such as ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “let Tehran know that America’s withdrawal from the Middle East and President Obama’s dreams of an entente with Iran are over.” But some sign — really, any sign — of toughness would be an improvement at this point.
The new Congress, in addition to trying to avoid a bad deal, should urge the president to proceed along some or all of these lines. Democrats’ willingness to join concerned Republicans at this stage is critical and will preserve any hope of eliminating Iran’s nuclear program without an Israel strike or U.S. military action (after a new president is elected, of course).