Does Obama Have the Courage to Pursue Peace with Iran?

Congress and Netanyahu stand in his way.


Settling the nuclear controversy with Iran peacefully will require courage on President Obama's part. Does he have what it will take to resist those who prefer war?

While Obama has yet to stake out a promising unequivocal position, if he does, the obstacles would remain formidable. The two biggest are the U.S. Congress and the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Even as positive signs emanated from Geneva, where talks took place last week, the war party in Congress was pushing new economic sanctions against the long-suffering Iranians, who have gone without needed consumer goods, including medicines, because the U.S. government has cut Iran off from the international trading system.

Since Congress controls the sanctions regime, it ultimately has the power to destroy the negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 nations. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, two Iran experts with experience on the National Security Council, emphasize this potential obstruction to peace, which Obama inflicted on himself. "During Obama's presidency," the Leveretts write,

many U.S. sanctions that started out as executive order sanctions have been written into law, with conditions for their removal that go well beyond progress on the nuclear issue.  These conditions include requirements that Tehran cut its ties to groups like Hizballah that the United States foolishly designates as terrorist organizations and effectively transform the Islamic Republic into a secular liberal republic.

The implications are ominous. Even if the Iranian government were to agree to stop enriching uranium beyond the low level needed to produce electricity, limit the number of centrifuges operated for enrichment, and accept broadly intrusive surprise inspections by the International Atomic Energy Commission — all of which the Iranians may be willing to accept — the war party could refuse to lift the sanctions on the grounds that Iran had not fulfilled these other extraneous and unreasonable demands, which would amount to regime change and humiliating subordination to the United States and Israel. (For a report on what Iran may have offered in Geneva, see this.)

The obstruction, however, is not all in Congress. The Leveretts write that

Obama administration officials and many pundits are arguing, in effect, that "transparency is not enough."

They are arguing that Washington must become, in effect, the co-manager of Iran's nuclear program, determining which Iranian nuclear facilities must be closed and which might be allowed to remain opening, determining not how many additional centrifuges Iran might be allowed to install in the future but how many centrifuges it must dismantle to satisfy the United States and Israel.

No one should expect Iran to agree to such demands. As a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — unlike the region's nuclear monopolist and U.S. ally, Israel — Iran may legally enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Moreover, Iran is an old and large country that inevitably will play an influential role in the region. Any sign that President Hassan Rouhani would accept demands perceived to subordinate Iran to the United States and Israel would only strengthen the hardest of Iranian hardliners and destroy any chance for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

That would apparently suit the war party just fine. It would also suit the Netanyahu government, the war party's close accomplice in the effort to scotch the peace talks with Iran. Just as things are beginning to look promising, Netanyahu is stepping up his war talk, deepening his conflict with Obama. The Guardian reports, "Just days after the first round of global nuclear talks with Iran, a rift appears to be emerging between Israel and its closest ally, the United States. Israel's prime minister … called on the US to step up pressure on Iran, even as American officials hinted at the possibility of easing tough economic pressure."

Netanyahu has made it clear that he favors decisive military action against Iran if its nuclear facilities are not fully dismantled, but as Israeli commentators point out, a U.S. agreement with Iran would make that impossible. So Netanyahu has an incentive to undercut an agreement.

All this comes against an incongruous background: U.S. and Israeli intelligence says Iran has no plans to build nuclear weapons. (Its leadership has issued a fatwa against weapons of mass destruction.) Moreover, even if it did build one, Iran would be deterred from offensive action by America's and Israel's overwhelming nuclear arsenals.

Obama must stand up to Netanyahu and the war party.

This column originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.