A Victory for Diplomacy

Alan Elsner
on February 3, 2014

Last December, in the wake of the First Step Agreement between the US, its allies and Iran on that country’s nuclear program, some of the more hawkish American forces on foreign policy decided to pursue legislation to impose further sanctions on Iran. Their bill – introduced by Senators Menendez and Kirk – laid out a series of maximalist conditions for the Iranians to meet and a near-impossible set of requirements and conditions that were to be included in a final deal.

The new bill, in short, was designed to kill the talks.

J Street and a host of other organizations went to work immediately to rescue the chances of a negotiated resolution to the Iran nuclear crisis.

The battle has pitted those who support tough diplomacy supported by sanctions against those who were determined to scuttle diplomacy, ratchet up sanctions and ultimately push our nation toward supporting the use of military force.

Thankfully, over the past month and a half, those who support providing the opportunity for a diplomatic resolution to this crisis have prevailed.

The Mendendez-Kirk legislation has stalled, and, with Senators hearing from tens of thousands of their constituents and beginning to recognize that the bill would hobble diplomacy, support for the bill has actually receded.

Today, it appears near-certain that Menendez-Kirk will not be brought to a vote, and the President and his team will have the time and space to pursue a permanent agreement through negotiations resuming on February 18 in Vienna.

Those who sought to undermine talks with the Mendendez-Kirk bill know they can no longer attain their goal. Instead, they are shifting their efforts to the formulation of non-binding congressional resolutions that focus on what they would like to come out of the negotiations with Iran — rather than actual sanctions legislation that would have wrecked those negotiations.

Over the next week or two, we could see such resolutions emerge in both houses of Congress. Know, however, that they are but pale shadows of the now-stalled legislation. Take comfort that, despite the hawkish rhetoric, they will have no binding effect. While the resolutions may suggest that the President take certain actions, they will have no power to force him to do so. These are crucial differences.

Some of those behind these new resolutions will likely make all kinds of claims. They will say their passage demonstrates the depth of bipartisan support for their position. They will say they are laying down an important marker to the Iranians and speaking with a voice that President Obama cannot ignore.

But make no mistake: the introduction of these new resolutions would actually be a sign that the Iran hawks have had to raise the white flag of surrender.

They are giving up for now on their effort to bend American policy – and the White House – to their will. They are returning to a tactic that has long served them well – ensuring overwhelming bipartisan passage of a resolution that satisfies their desire for chest-thumping. Thankfully, their effort will have no impact on American policy.

Such resolutions may contain language to which we object and lay out policies that we do not support.

But importantly, the negotiations aimed at ending the danger of Iranian development of nuclear weapons will be able to proceed without Congressional interference that ran the risk of derailing them.

We have no way of predicting now whether the talks with Iran about to get underway will succeed. In the end, should they fail, we may, as President Obama has said, see the need for further sanctions – and we’re sure it won’t take Congress long to pass them.

The events of the past two months, however, are important. They constitute a victory for diplomacy and a foreign policy based on rational pursuit of national interest not ideology.

In the months ahead, it is our hope that this small victory will be followed both by a permanent agreement with Iran on its nuclear program and by progress toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

These may be lofty goals, but, in what’s shaping up to be a critical year of decisions, at least there will be one less obstacle in the way of tough, hard-nosed diplomacy.