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Jamal Abdi Headshot

Will Congress Undo Obama's Diplomacy?

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The 111th Congress is barreling forward in a last minute race to enact what may prove to be one of the most damaging American foreign policy decision for years to come before adjourning for the holidays. It is a decision that may isolate us from our closest allies and biggest trading partners, pose momentous new challenges for our efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and the greater Middle East, undermine the Iranian people's struggle for democracy, and once again place the United States on the grave path towards military confrontation. But if you think Congress is engaging in the type of spirited debate that such a strategically significant policy deserves, think again.

On Tuesday, December 15, the House plans to approve the Iranian Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act under a suspension vote, meaning that a bill that levels sanctions and suspends trade with US allies while restricting the President's authority to make major foreign policy decisions will be passed by the House with no amendments and limited debate in a process typically reserved for naming post offices and congratulating the winners of college basketball championships. Meanwhile, the Senate last week attempted to fast-track its own similar bill before the Administration intervened at the last minute. In a letter to Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, the State Department expresses concern with the bill's timing and substance, stating that it could "have unintended foreign policy consequences" and "weaken rather than strengthen international unity and support for our efforts" to change Iran's behavior.

Some in Washington have seized on new unilateral sanctions as a way to prematurely slam the engagement door closed and bolt it shut. Tehran's unhelpful approach to negotiations over the last ten weeks has turned an opportunity into a stalemate, giving critics of engagement plenty of opportunities to declare diplomacy a dead end. But in taking the bait, Congress is rushing to slam the door on our own fingers, as well as on the fingers of the Iranian people. Congress' newest incarnation of sanctions, just like the Iran sanctions of the past two decades, will be meaningless in changing Iranian behavior but will contribute immensely to the suffering of innocent Iranians.

In fact, it is partly owing to the decades of isolation under a sanctions economy that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have established political and economic dominance over the people of Iran and the clerical regime's paranoid, anti-Western brand of nationalism has claimed relevance.

In June, a tectonic shift occurred in Iran when the Iranian people took to the streets by the millions to protest a stolen election and to stand up to their government in demonstrations unrivaled since the 1979 revolution.

Congress must adjust its strategy towards Iran to account for this unprecedented development. A successful approach is one that recognizes the US cannot attempt to impose democracy from the outside but can help Iranians struggling for their freedom by not standing in their way with bad policies. We must reconfigure sanctions to target the bad actors in the government who control the nuclear program and who are responsible for recent human rights violations instead of cutting off the Iranian people from the global community. If President Obama deems it necessary to pursue the sanctions option, there must be an honest debate regarding why the strategies of the past thirty years have failed and how we can recalibrate a winning strategy for the future.

In addition to undermining the Iranian people, further unilateral sanctions will antagonize our allies. This will likely undermine President Obama's diplomatic efforts that have regained the unity and credibility among our international partners and will provide crucial leverage to change Iranian behavior. Congress must not rush to negate the President's effort and to block the US from speaking with one voice alongside our international partners. Eight years of saber rattling, non-engagement and, later, pseudo-engagement should have been instructive.

George Bush famously admitted that the US had "sanctioned itself out of influence in Iran." Now, we risk sanctioning the US out of the engagement process, leaving no more arrows in our quiver but military action.

Any calculation that diplomacy was going to succeed in a mere twelve weeks is naïve. Any calculation that the US can unilaterally impose "crippling" sanctions and change Iranian behavior without our allies is disingenuous.

And any calculation that the US can bully Iran into submission is a fantasy that is frighteningly similar to the lead-up to war with Iraq. In reality, there are few who actually believe any of these fairy tales, let alone that we must act on them before the President's established year end timeline.

But as one proponent of sanctions recently confided, "the purpose of enacting these sanctions now is to prove that they don't work,"cryptically suggesting that, once engagement has been struck off the list and the final sanctions box is checked, the US can move on to the step nobody wants to talk about but which will be the last remaining option on the table--military action.

It is time to remove fantasy from our calculations on Iran and to level with the American people about what are the implications of prematurely derailing engagement and what is the true endgame that lies around the corner.