1 May 2009, by
Whereas United States President Barack Obama promised in his new year message to Iran that he was committed to a new diplomacy that "will not be advanced by threats", a month later this is precisely what is happening. This is in light of new White House-backed legislation in the US Congress that aims to impose "crippling sanctions" on Iran by targeting its energy imports.
The Iran Sanctions Enhancement Act, introduced by a bipartisan group of US senators, states in its preamble that its purpose is "to enhance US diplomatic efforts with respect to Iran by expanding economic sanctions against Iran to include refined petroleum, and for other purposes".
Before adopting this bill, Congress ought to pause and think more seriously about the likely adverse results lest it gets implemented and, indeed, it causes significant disruption in the Iranian economy. In that case, Iran would retaliate where it could in the region by threatening US interests where they are the weakest, hardly a fulfillment of Obama’s current quest to enlist Iran on regional security.
The United Nations has already imposed several rounds of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, which many say is geared towards building a nuclear bomb, although Tehran has consistently maintained that its enrichment of uranium is for peaceful purposes and in accordance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The US has also imposed sanctions unilaterally.
Coinciding with an Iran-focused annual conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), over the weekend,  the purpose of this pending legislation is to provide "a powerful new weapon to use against Iran", to paraphrase Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, one of its sponsors.
Another key sponsor, Senator Joseph Lieberman, has also referred to it as "another stick" and, according to reports in the US media, has solicited the approval of the Obama administration’s point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, who is touring the Persian Gulf region to whip up support for the US’s diplomacy on Iran. He is an avid supporter of the "tougher sticks rather than carrots" approach toward Iran.
The Senate bill was introduced shortly after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appearance before a Senate committee warning of "crippling sanctions".
Interestingly, at the same time, Clinton admitted that the past "stick and carrot" policy of the George W Bush administration toward Iran was a "failure". Now somehow she wants to have it both ways, that is, pretend that the US has a new diplomacy toward Iran while simultaneously recycling the old pattern of coercive diplomacy.
So much for a "paradigm shift" in US foreign policy, one that would put the much-anticipated US-Iran dialogue in a post-hegemonic frame of reference by the promise of "mutual respect" and "common interests".
Instead of opposing the new bill, which puts US diplomacy squarely in the coercive mode, the White House has tacitly nodded to it, particularly since the bill cites several past campaign statements of Obama in support of hitting the supply of gasoline to Iran in order to "squeeze" the country. The expectation is that such an "interruption" would "significantly bolster current diplomatic initiatives".
But, such optimistic predictions about the likely utility and impact of the proposed new sanctions ignore the obverse possibility that it could impede any new diplomacy, deflating its momentum, and causing such apprehension on the other side that, as a result, it would spell doom for the yet-to-start US-Iran dialogue.
The White House’s consent to this legislative initiative robs the administration of the self-cultivated perception of a paradigm shift from the pattern of coercive diplomacy. Moreover, it fuels the argument of Iranian hardliners who have raised objections to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s olive branch toward the Obama administration.
In turn, this raises a serious question: is the Obama administration deliberately self-torpedoing the promised "engagement" with Iran, in part by dragging its feet on jump-starting dialogue and also by relying on its congressional proxies to throw obstacles on the path of this dialogue? This is precisely at a time when Iran-European Union dialogue is showing promising signs, in light of the latest statement by Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, that praises messages from Tehran as being "constructive" and in presenting "a new opportunity for the advancement of talks".
Why should the Obama administration talk engagement while steering directly or indirectly clear from it? One possible answer is that, despite all talk of a win-win situation, Iran may actually come ahead in any such talks, especially if they are anchored in the "clear-cut framework" of the NPT and "the [International Atomic Energy] Agency", just as Ahmadinejad demanded in his recent interview with the American television network ABC.
Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear fuel cycle is authorized under the articles of the NPT and that means transparent and open uranium-enrichment activities are difficult to shut down legally as long as they remain within the full-scope verifications and surveillance mechanisms of the IAEA.
As a result, lacking any evidence that Iran has abused its NPT right to channel its much-cherished nuclear fuel cycle for "weaponization purposes", the US and its Western allies are now caught in a serious conundrum: how to foster a multilateral dialogue with Iran and insist on Iran’s long-term if not permanent suspension of its nuclear fuel program without having the benefit of international law on their side?
Better then not to have the dialogue or have it right away and simply pay lip service to "engagement" when, in fact, the real engagement is between the Obama administration and its Republican predecessor with its one-dimensional and unhealthy toeing to Israeli policy on Iran.
Concerning the latter, given Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s explicit deferment of the "two-state" solution for Palestine to "progress in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear issue", it is clear that Israel’s formidable allies in Washington are intent on preventing meaningful progress on those negotiations. This is simply because such progress would by definition force Israel to make concessions with respect to the Palestinians.
It appears that pseudo-engagement has replaced true engagement with Iran and the new legislation camouflages its true intention - to restrict, postpone and ultimately nip in the bud the flashes of a diplomatic change in the US’s hitherto coercive diplomacy toward Iran.