The Hawks' Hypocrisy on the Iran Sanctions Bill

Some of the same commentators who say the Senate proposal will guarantee an agreement sticks have already declared a diplomatic deal will never work and that war is the only option.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, President Hassan Rouhani, and aide Mohammad Nahavandian arrive for a meeting at Davos. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

Last week, an Obama Administration National Security Council aide named Bernadette Meehan got herself in trouble for suggesting that some of the members of Congress pushing a new Iran sanctions bill “should be upfront with the American public” and admit that they “want the United States to take military action.” Outrage quickly followed. Commentary blogger Jonathan Tobin called Meehan’s statement a “canard” and a “slander.” Foundation for Defense of Democracies fellow James Kirchick called it “preposterous.” Even House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer got in on the act, declaring, “Nobody believes, as far as I know, that going to war with Iran is anything but a dangerous objective that none of us would seek.”

Nobody? It’s true that members of Congress don’t generally go around urging America to bomb Iran. But their allies do. In fact, some of the most prominent commentators now justifying new sanctions as a means of helping diplomacy succeed have already said diplomacy can’t succeed. And some of the same pundits now championing sanctions as an alternative to war have already called for war.

Earlier this month, the Foreign Policy Initiative, a think tank founded by William Kristol and other well-known hawks, gathered signatures for an open letter to congressional leaders. The letter did not explicitly endorse the sanctions bill currently awaiting a vote in the Senate, but it said, “Congress has a chance to play an important role in making clear the consequences of Iranian violations of the interim nuclear deal” and “in clarifying expectations with respect to future nuclear talks with Tehran,” which is exactly what the new sanctions bill does. On one particular point, the letter was emphatic: Sanctions can help diplomacy succeed. “Congressional action,” it read, “can thus substantially improve the prospect that Iran’s growing nuclear threat will be verifiably and irreversibly halted without the use of force.” (The italics are mine).

The letter’s signatories comprise a who’s who of Iran hawks. Reviewing all their past statements was too cumbersome, so I asked two talented college students—Rachel Cohen and Zachary Parker—to investigate a few of the signers. Is it really a “canard” that some of the people now claiming sanctions can help avert war actually want war? What follows are only a few of the clearest answers to that question:

  • Joshua Muravchik, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute: “We must bomb Iran.”
  • Matthew Kroenig, Georgetown University: “Time to Attack Iran.”
  • Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations: “The only credible option for significantly delaying the Iranian nuclear program would be a bombing campaign.”
  • Eliot Cohen, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: “The choices are now what they ever were: an American or an Israeli strike, which would probably cause a substantial war, or living in a world with Iranian nuclear weapons, which may also result in war, perhaps nuclear, over a longer period of time. Understandably, the U.S. government has hoped for a middle course of sanctions, negotiations and bargaining that would remove the problem without the ugly consequences. This is self-delusion.”
  • Cliff May, Foundation for Defense of Democracies: “Iran’s rulers are not open to engagement no matter what mix of carrots and sticks are offered.” (After I quoted May on the radio last week, he emailed to explain that he considers “diplomacy” and “engagement” to be different things).
  • Abe Greenwald, Commentary: “The mullahs in Tehran are not open to compromise, and cannot be made any more pliable by the impositions of a stricter sanctions regime. Any attempts at diplomacy or institution of sanctions are, from here on out, aimed at building an evidentiary case that every non-military option will have been exhausted. Once that case can be made, Obama will either give the order to bomb Iran or let the Khomeinist regime in Tehran assert complete regional hegemony. There will not be, nor has there ever been, a third option.”
  • And, finally, Kristol himself: “It’s long since been time for the United States to speak to this regime in the language it understands—force…So we can stop talking. Instead, we can follow the rat lines in Iraq and Afghanistan back to their sources, and destroy them. We can strike at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and weaken them. And we can hit the regime’s nuclear weapons program, and set it back.”

The most revealing sentence is Greenwald’s: “Any attempts at diplomacy or institution of sanctions are, from here on out, aimed at building an evidentiary case that every non-military option will have been exhausted.” There are certainly sanctions supporters who genuinely believe—despite the protestations of U.S. intelligence—that the bill currently in the Senate will help facilitate a nuclear deal. But just as clearly, there are others, like Kristol, who see the new sanctions bill, with its patently unrealistic demands for what a final deal would contain, as a way to torpedo talks while blaming Iran for their failure. As a way to build “an evidentiary case that every non-military option will have been exhausted.”

For them to justify new sanctions as a means of settling the Iranian nuclear dispute “without the use of force” is patently dishonest. And it’s neither a “canard” nor a “slander” to point that out.