• Think twice
    December 10,2013

    Sen. Bernard Sanders ought to think twice before lining up with those in the Senate who are considering new economic sanctions as a way to prod Iran toward new concessions on its nuclear program.

    The pro-sanctions senators are working on the flawed assumption that because sanctions have succeeded in bringing Iran to the bargaining table, additional sanctions will help in securing a long-term agreement. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry warn that in Iranian eyes new sanctions will appear like bad faith bargaining and will wreck negotiations.

    Some senators have bought into the good-cop, bad-cop cliche. Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week, “We consistently hear about how we have to worry about the hard-liners in Iran. And it seems that the Iranians get to play good cop-bad cop, [Iranian President] Rouhani as the good cop, the hard-liners as the bad cop.”

    The implication is that we need hard-liners, too. Indeed, senators are lining up for the bad-cop role, including Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York. It helps them to demonstrate their toughness with Iran and the ardor of their support for Israel.

    Posturing has its role, no doubt, and it is likely that the Iranians have heard loud and clear, over several years, the mantra from both Obama and the Israelis that “everything is on the table” for dealing with Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. If Sanders is tempted to do some bad-cop posturing, however, he ought to consider whether adding new threats to the U.S.’ arsenal of threats would be likely to drive Iran away from the bargaining table altogether.

    It’s clear what the U.S. response would be if Iran were to add dodges and feints to its nuclear activities during this period of negotiation. The U.S. would conclude Iran was not serious about a deal.

    During this week of remembrance for Nelson Mandela, it is helpful to recall the lessons of Mandela’s life. He was tough when he needed to be in mounting resistance to apartheid in South Africa. But when it came time to achieve peaceful change, he understood it was necessary to develop trust with his enemies and to allow for the dignity of people on all sides. That meant negotiating with sectors of society that had a long history of murder and oppression. If Mandela could successfully allow for an epochal change from white to black rule in South Africa, the United States and its allies can allow for change in our relations with Iran — without adding poisonous new measures to the agreements we are trying nurture.

    Certainly, Iran has acted as an enemy, helping Shiite insurgents wage war against Americans in Iraq, supporting terrorism in Lebanon, propping up Bashar al-Assad, the besieged president in Syria. It has also acted to help the United States, as it did in ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001.

    Sen. Patrick Leahy is standing with the Obama administration on the sanctions issue and in negotiations with Iran. He understands that a good-cop, bad-cop routine also requires a good cop, someone who is willing to take chances for peace. Indeed, the negotiations under way in the Middle East, both in relation to Iran and between the Palestinians and Israelis, together have the potential for reshaping the politics of the region. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 touched off a decade of anarchy in the region, setting in motion a variety of jihadi groups, usually Sunni, who promise to reconstitute as al-Qaida-like threats to the United States. The position of the United States in seeking to restrain Sunni violence would be improved if we were less beholden to Sunni Saudi Arabia. Iran is a rising power. If its power can be more closely aligned with American interests, it could become a force for stability rather than an outlier, seeking to gain influence only by causing trouble. Sanders should not stand in the way of these historic possibilities.

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