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Mr. Obama’s Iran problem

Congress is not helping the president deal with the Islamic Republic

NEAR the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, his inner circle twice debated whether diplomacy or American air strikes were the best way to stop Middle Eastern foes from building a nuclear bomb. In both debates, involving Syria and Iran respectively, Robert Gates, the defence secretary, argued that Mr Bush could afford to try talking first without sacrificing his credibility. “I suspect no one in the world doubts this administration’s willingness to use force,” Mr Gates told Mr Bush in 2007, with more than a touch of understatement.

Now Iran is again causing angst in Washington. Barack Obama faces acute, bipartisan scepticism in Congress, after his envoys joined other world powers in brokering an interim nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic. This is due to take effect on January 20th, easing international sanctions in exchange for slowing Iran’s nuclear work, and buying time for a more comprehensive deal. At the time of writing 59 of 100 senators say they back a proposal to hold extra sanctions over Iran’s head, despite warnings from Mr Obama that if Congress votes for new sanctions Iran may abandon the talks. That means Senate sceptics are not far from the two-thirds majority they need to override Mr Obama’s threat of a veto. (The Republican-controlled House of Representatives strongly backs tougher sanctions, either because members think the Iranians are bluffing about walking out, or because their favoured Iran strategy involves regime change.) Team Obama has let rip, asserting that passing new sanctions—even ones whose bite is suspended—will wreck talks, shatter international unity over Iran and trigger a “march toward war”. A National Security Council staffer said that if some members of Congress want military action against Iran, “they should be upfront with the American public and say so.”

Some of the forces at work have changed little since 2007. Friends such as Israel and allies such as Saudi Arabia still believe that Iran is a rogue power that will always break nuclear promises. Many members of Congress sincerely loathe Iran’s regime, partly because it sponsors terrorism and tortures dissidents, but also, perhaps, because of a sense that Iran bested America in the battle for influence in post-Saddam Iraq. If the Iranian government of President Hassan Rohani presents a smiling face to the world, many American lawmakers see that as a trick or as a sign that existing tough sanctions have worked, making it imperative to keep a boot on the regime’s neck, while reminding Iran that fresh cheating will be punished.

Another constant is domestic politics, especially in a mid-term election year. An influential pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has been lobbying members of Congress to keep the pressure on Iran. So have members of the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (often known by the Persian acronym MEK), a group with a violent past whose opposition to the Iranian regime has nonetheless earned it allies in Congress. Lastly, cynicism remains a lodestar. Democratic leaders in the Senate are not rushing to put plans for extra sanctions to a vote, and insiders say that suits some senators very well. For such opportunists, co-sponsoring a sanctions bill that goes nowhere is an ideal outcome: it avoids hard foreign-policy trade-offs, while warding off attack ads that call them soft on Iran.

Yet at least one big thing is new: a widespread belief, certainly among Republicans, that Mr Obama is in exactly the opposite position to Mr Bush. Plenty of people in the world doubt his willingness to use force, even to prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb on his watch. If Congress is willing to risk scuppering talks with Iran at this early stage, a big part of the explanation is that Mr Obama is suffering a crisis of presidential credibility. That crisis dates back, most acutely, to his failure to secure congressional approval for promised strikes on Syria for using chemical weapons. Put bluntly, Washington critics think Mr Obama talks endlessly and wields only sticks small enough to be delivered by drone.

Putin and Assad take him seriously

Obama supporters inside and outside government offer two big counter-arguments about credibility. First, they offer a different interpretation of what happened over Syria last year. At the very moment that Washington was focused on Mr Obama’s apparent weakness, they say, the people who counted—Presidents Bashar Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia—found talk of American strikes credible enough—and frightening enough—to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal.

Second, it is argued, when such allies as the Saudis or Israelis talk about American credibility, they often mean that they want American troops to fight and die to advance their own foreign- policy interests. In their bleakest moods, American officials accuse the Gulf monarchies of being willing to hold the coats of the last American soldiers to fall on their behalf, but not much more.

In public, Israel and the Gulf monarchies say their fear is that a nuclear deal with Iran cannot work. In private, Obama-backers suggest, such Middle Eastern allies are almost as frightened of the opposite outcome: that a nuclear accord might work, paving the way for Iran to resume its pre-revolutionary role as a Shia regional power and a counterweight to the influence of the mostly-Sunni Gulf monarchies. There are few signs of Congress pondering these questions very hard. “There aren’t five senators who have really thought through what it means for the geopolitical balance of power, if we do reach a [nuclear] deal,” growls a senior figure on Capitol Hill.

Much simpler for Congress to cover its back while planning for failure. Overall, Mr Obama’s handling of foreign policy is far from flawless: his approach to Syria is a mess, for instance. But with Iran he is right to try talking, not least because international unity has probably peaked. He could do with more help at home—but is unlikely to get it.

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