Under Pressure from Hawks, Obama Tacks to the Right

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Inter Press Service

Under Pressure from Hawks, Obama Tacks to the Right

by
Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON - In the face of
mounting pressure from hawks in Washington and the continued threat of
military action from Israel, the Barack Obama Administration has been
taking a harder line in its latest pronouncements about Iran.

Recent media reports
have suggested that the administration is leaning toward an
end-of-September deadline for Tehran to respond to U.S. diplomatic
outreach concerning its nuclear programme, at which point it will
consider stepping up sanctions against the Iranian energy sector.

This
course would cut against the advise of a growing number of Iran
analysts, who have cautioned both that the Tehran regime is in no
position to negotiate at the moment and that sanctions are likely only
to solidify the power of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But the administration is facing a great
deal of pressure to move quickly to sanctions from congressional hawks
- backed by hardline organisations within the so-called "Israel lobby"
- who have been pushing for a tougher line against Tehran since well
before the Jun. 12 elections that triggered Iran's current political
crisis.

While it remains too early to tell whether the Obama
Administration intends to follow through on threats of sanctions before
the end of the year, recent statements by administration officials have
sounded increasingly impatient with the rate of diplomatic progress.

"We
need to take stock in September," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
said Sunday in a television interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria. "If
there is a response, it needs to be on a fast track. We're not going to
keep the window open forever."

Clinton also stated that the U.S.
is working with allies to prepare "a very robust set of sanctions that
we can get the international community to sign off on" in case
engagement does not bear fruit.

The administration has suggested
that a Sep. 30 U.N. General Assembly meeting will be the deadline for a
diplomatic response from Tehran.

This end-of-September deadline
is itself a testament to the political pressure the administration has
come under from the right.

When Obama took office in January, he
was reluctant to set an explicit timetable for engagement. During
meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May, Obama
eventually suggested that the administration would perform a
"reassessment" of progress at the end of the year.

The turmoil
that followed Iran's June elections has led some analysts to propose a
pause in the engagement schedule - since Iran remains preoccupied with
its internal crisis and its political situation fluctuates on a daily
basis.

Instead, the engagement timetable seems, if anything, to
have been expedited. While the administration has retained the
end-of-year timetable for tangible diplomatic progress, the
end-of-September deadline for a response is comparatively new.

Few
expect Iran to be able to resolve its internal turmoil by Sep. 30,
leaving open the question of how the U.S. intends to respond if the
deadline passes without a response.

Trita Parsi, president of
the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), is among those calling
for a "tactical pause" in engagement. Parsi cautioned Monday on the
Huffington Post that, "the biggest mistake the U.S. can commit is to
begin setting deadlines that no one - including the U.S. itself -
believes can be held up."

Hawks in Congress, however, have other
ideas. Congressional leaders plan to push new anti-Iran sanctions
legislation in September - barring any major change in the diplomatic
situation.

The most prominent piece of sanctions legislation is
the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), which would impose
penalties on firms exporting refined petroleum products to Iran. The
IRPSA is co-sponsored by more than half the members of Congress.

Hardline
"Israel lobby" organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American
Jewish Organisations are planning a major September lobbying push in
support of the legislation, the Forward reported last week.

The Obama Administration has refrained from public comment on the IRPSA and other pending congressional legislation.

But,
last week, a flurry of media reports suggested that the administration
was giving increased consideration to new sanctions.

Israeli
newspaper Ha'aretz reported Jul. 31 that U.S. National Security Advisor
James Jones had briefed Israeli officials on U.S. plans for new
sanctions. Similar reports in The New York Times and The Guardian soon
followed.

However, these reports relied primarily on anonymous
Israeli and European officials - leaving open the possibility that
outside actors were leaking information in order to try to box the
administration in to new sanctions.

In any case, all signs
suggest that if the administration turns to sanctions, it will aim for
multilateral sanctions in conjunction with allies rather than the
unilateral sanctions being pushed by Congress.

"The coverage of
the Obama Administration's stance on sanctions has been pretty
disingenuous," NIAC Acting Legislative Director Patrick Disney told
IPS. "I believe the administration has communicated that if Iran does
not accept by the end of September the invitation to begin talks, then
the U.S. will begin the process for another round of multilateral
sanctions."

"[But] there is no evidence that the administration
has communicated anything remotely supportive of the [petroleum]
sanctions legislation to Congress," Disney added.

Proponents of
petroleum sanctions claim that they will weaken the regime by
exploiting its reliance on refined petroleum imports. Despite its
natural oil reserves, Iran lacks refining capacity and must import
between 25 and 40 percent of its refined petroleum.

Even some
hawks concede, however, that unilateral sanctions measures such as the
IRPSA would be of limited utility in depriving Iran of refined
petroleum. Multilateral sanctions would be more effective - however
most analysts are sceptical that Russia and China would sign on to such
measures.

But, a growing number of commentators have suggested
that even effective petroleum sanctions would be self-defeating. They
argue that the brunt of these sanctions would be borne by innocent
Iranian civilians rather than the regime itself, and that they would be
likely to solidify the regime's power by allowing it to rally against a
common enemy.

Sanctions opponents point to the example of Iraq,
where strict sanctions imposed from 1990 to 2003 were blamed for
hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths - without weakening the Saddam
Hussein regime's hold on power.

"[T]here is absolutely not a
shred of evidence that any major or even minor opposition leader - from
[presidential candidate] Mir Hossein Moussavi to [presidential
candidate] Mehdi Karrubi to [former president] Mohammad Khatami, or any
of their related political organs or legitimate representatives - has
ever uttered a word that could possibly be interpreted as calling for
or endorsing any sort of economic sanction against Iran," wrote
Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi on CNN.com.

"As in
the Iraqi case, imposition of economic sanctions on Iran will have
catastrophic humanitarian consequences, while it will even more enrich
and empower such critical components of the security and military
apparatus as the Pasdaran and the Basij," Dabashi wrote.

On
Tuesday, Nobel Prize-winning Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi
warned against sanctions because of the harm they would do to the
Iranian people, Reuters reported.

Beyond the argument over
sanctions looms the threat of Israeli military force. Israel has
repeatedly signalled that it would consider a military strike against
Iranian nuclear facilities if it is not satisfied with the progress of
negotiations.

Some observers suggest that the Obama
Administration's increased talk of multilateral sanctions is primarily
intended to placate Israel and its hawkish allies in the U.S., thereby
giving the administration some breathing room to work on a deal.

But
these same hawks are determined to force the administration to follow
through on its talk of sanctions, and matters seem likely to come to a
head in the days leading up to the Sep. 30 deadline.

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