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Is the Sanctions Debate Justifying the Military Option?

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To an outsider, it may seem like Washington is united in favor of imposing new sanctions on Iran. But, like in Iran itself, the internal wrangling over this question among Washington policymakers is much more complex and divided by factions than one may assume.

Congressional leaders from both parties have long called for new sanctions -- and, bolstered by the strong support of the pro-Israel lobby, even some Democrats have undermined the President's engagement strategy in their zeal for a more heavy-handed approach. Now that the administration has moved past direct talks and embraced the pressure track, one would assume that Congress, the President and the rest of the Iran policymaking community is in harmony.

But they're not. Not even close.

The President's harshest critics, among them future presidential-hopeful Sarah Palin, disparage the administration's push for sanctions as being too soft. They decry the shift away from "crippling" sanctions -- which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had previously endorsed -- to a more targeted approach of sanctions that "bite." The administration is holding firm on its decision not to pursue a unilateral or "coalition of the willing" approach until the multilateral option has been tried within the UN Security Council. And yet, many Republicans who once pressed the administration to abandon diplomatic engagement in favor of new sanctions have now soured on Obama's version of the pressure track.

Among both liberals and conservatives, there is little optimism that new sanctions will significantly alter the situation facing US-Iran relations.

This is due, in part, to the administration's inability to clarify its reasons for pursuing sanctions in the first place. Originally, the incoming Obama administration laid out a strategy of diplomatic engagement, bolstered -- if need be -- by economic pressure. The core of this strategy remained face-to-face talks, and sanctions were depicted as a way to gain leverage at the negotiating table.

It was impossible, however, to anticipate the tectonic shift that took place in Iran after last June's presidential election. Without warning, a powerful movement sprang up that challenged the very nature of Iran's theocracy. That is when the rationale for the Administration's sanctions push shifted. Officials began speaking of targeted sanctions having the potential to influence the "internal dynamics" inside Iran -- providing a boost for the protest movement and possibly even bringing about regime change.

These two very divergent justifications for the Administration's sanctions policy have never been fully reconciled, nor has there been any clarification about what the sanctions are actually supposed to accomplish.

This lack of strategic vision came even more clearly into view when the contents of a secret memo were leaked to the New York Times last week. Written by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the memo asserted that the Obama administration does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran's continued development of its nuclear program despite western diplomatic efforts and sanctions.

Now, in the context of this strategic black hole, many in Washington are openly questioning the sanctions option, with conservatives turning sharply against President Obama's sanctions plan.

Russia and China will never allow meaningful sanctions to be imposed, they argue, so the UN Security Council process is a waste of time. Similarly, unilateral sanctions -- which have passed both houses of Congress and need only be combined for the President signature -- are unlikely to alter Iran's behavior. After all, Iran has long anticipated a US clampdown on refined petroleum imports, and has therefore put in place a number measures designed to inoculate itself against any sort of pressure the US and a few of its allies might impose.

Thus, no longer under the illusion that "crippling" sanctions will be a panacea, critics of Obama's Iran policy are seeking to frame the issue as a choice between living with a nuclear Iran and taking military action to prevent it. Yet this framing deliberately eliminates the various other options the President has at his disposal, and it is intentionally designed to make the military option seem preferable.

The challenge now for the Obama administration will be to demonstrate that this dilemma is in fact a false choice. This is sure to be difficult, however, as Iran's nuclear program continues to grow and in the absence of any breakthrough on the diplomatic front.

There is little doubt that the Obama administration views military options on Iran as a means only of last resort, but if conventional wisdom solidifies around this stark choice of either a nuclear-armed Iran or a military strike, President Obama is likely to find himself surrounded by members of both parties propagating the idea that all other options have, in fact, been exhausted.

This post originally appeared at InsideIran.org.