As a new round of Iran talks gets underway, the temptation in Washington — as usual, as with most issues — is to engage in ferocious debate about proper U.S. approaches to the nuclear issue. President Obama appears to have deflected Congressional interest in intensifying sanctions, at least for now, but the criticism of his policies remains widespread and quite strong.
There are admittedly valid issues within the Iranian nuclear file to debate. Specifically, does Iran's new willingness to negotiate reflect a weakness that we should seek to attack further — keeping economic sanctions in place, even if not adding to them now, while maintaining a very hard line in negotiations? Or is it fragile within Iran's own political system, requiring some degree of American flexibility and moderation if we are to improve the odds that President Rouhani's new engagement policy will maintain support within the Islamic Republic?
I lean towards the latter view but clearly one can and should debate the mix of tools and tactics that would be optimal. There is no way to prove one position conclusively right, and so the dialogue within the U.S. and other key international states can and should go on.
But it is important, given the degree of acrimony in American politics today on most issues foreign and domestic, to stay focused on the central point here — whatever prospects we have of a negotiated deal constraining Iran's nuclear program are the result of U.S. and international pressure dating back to the George W. Bush administration and solidly involving both houses of Congress and both political parties as well. This point is important to make, lest we get so preoccupied with scoring partisan points that we lose sight of the main and crucial goal — ideally, preventing Iran from getting near a nuclear bomb without having to use force to achieve that outcome.
The international sanctions policies that have brought the Iranian economy to its knees began to intensify in the last administration. George W. Bush did not want to use force or see Israel use force against Iran himself; as a result, working through the UN system in New York but also the Department of the Treasury through the office of then-Under Secretary Stuart Levey, he orchestrated a very impressive package of formal and informal sanctions on Iran's high-technology trade, financial dealings, and other core elements of the Iranian economy.
President Obama took this to the next level. Once the June 2009 elections were stolen, shamelessly and brutally, by Iranian hardliners, he gave up his hopes of détente and intensified the sanctions regime. In the end, of course, Iran's oil trade was cut in half in addition to all the other pressure points brought against it. Again, the Department of the Treasury did a great deal, but so did Congress as well as the UN system.
No one knows where the Iranian nuclear issue is headed, but to me, we should be proud of our national debate and of the policies that have resulted. They were the smartest approach to an almost intractable issue, they were pursued almost seamlessly by two successful administrations, and the Congress has been a worthy partner even as it has also at times challenged the occupant of the White House over specific approaches and tactics. It is an impressive if interim accomplishment of our democracy, of other key democracies around the world, and of international diplomacy. We should not lose sight of what we are still capable of getting right in this country, and the world, and the Iran nuclear issue to date is a very important case in point.