Unbeknownst to Senators Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Iran’s hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is rooting for them as they challenge President Barack Obama over new Iran sanctions. Tehran’s hardliners cunningly hope to benefit from Kirk and Menendez’s sabotage of diplomacy. Here’s why.
The arguments of sanctions proponents rest on three myths that, left unchallenged, risk severely undermining efforts to prevent Iran from achieving an undetectable breakout capability.
First, sanctions hawks argue that their aggressive policies create an effective good-cop/bad-cop dynamic that enhances Obama’s diplomacy. While such a dynamic can be useful, its effectiveness rests on the idea that the good cop can deliver on his promises and rein in the bad cop. If the good cop cannot convincingly signal that ability, the desired psychological effect is entirely lost. The bad cop simply cannot be the winning cop.
Rather than boosting Obama’s diplomacy, Kirk and Menendez are portraying him as weak, while showing themselves as wholly indifferent to the agreements the United States has signed. New sanctions would after all blatantly violate the Geneva accord.
Kirk and Menendez have taken their thirst for sanctions too far. They are turning a good-cop/bad-cop routine into a weak-cop/insane-cop dynamic. If Tehran’s hardliners would portray President Hassan Rouhani as weak and incapable of delivering, the predictable advice from sanctions hawks would be that there is no use negotiating with a counterpart that isn’t in control of policy. Thanks to Kirk and Menendez’s zeal for sanctions, hardliners in Iran now say precisely that about negotiating with Obama.
Second, sanctions advocates argue that more sanctions would further pressure Iran’s economy. In reality, more sanctions will actually lead to less sanctions.
If the Geneva deal falls apart as a result of Congressional foul play, the world will view the U.S. – and not Iran – as the main obstacle to a nuclear agreement. With blame shifting to the U.S., international consensus against Iran will wither away, and with it, much of the international sanctions regime. Numerous countries will stop implementing their sanctions, thus providing Tehran with de facto sanctions relief – but without Iran giving any nuclear concessions. This is the cost of Congress overplaying its hand – a miscalculation Iranian hardliners deeply hope Washington makes.
Finally, sanctions enthusiasts argue that more sanctions weaken Iranian hardliners. In reality, the opposite is true.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Khamenei did not permit Rouhani’s election. The population forced their will onto the regime, realizing that the regime’s internal fissures disabled it from repeating the fraud of 2009. In 2013, Khamenei simply had no choice but to accept the will of the population. Ever since, he has been preparing the pendulum of power to shift back to his side.
Khamenei supports Rouhani’s diplomacy not because he agrees with it, but because he has turned it into a win-win for himself. As long as he patiently waits till the talks either succeed or collapse due to American foul play - courtesy of senators Menendez and Kirk - he will strengthen his position both internationally and domestically.
If diplomacy succeeds, he will take credit for it. If diplomacy fails as a result of American sabotage, he will claim vindication. His mistrust of the West will have proven correct, as will his line that Iran’s interest is best served by resisting rather than collaborating with the West. Iran’s moderates and pragmatists will once again be pushed to the margins of Iranian politics. Rouhani will be weakened and momentum will shift back to Khamenei and the hardliners.
Regionally, Obama will be further weakened, having first seen his attempt to bomb Syria thwarted by the American public and then his diplomacy sabotaged by his own party members in the Senate. Hardliners in Iran see a weakened Obama as beneficial to Iran.
If new sanctions later lead to war with Iran - which Khamenei may believe is inevitable - Iran’s Supreme Leader and his regime will be better positioned to survive the confrontation since international support for U.S. military action will be at a minimum.
Ironically, Khamenei finds himself in a surprising position. He doesn’t have to do anything. He only needs to patiently wait for Senators Kirk and Menendez to make him a winner by recklessly pushing for sanctions and making America - not Iran - the problem.
If diplomacy is permitted to succeed, however, Khamenei may benefit in the short run, but in the long run, it will present him with one of his greatest challenges thus far: the unleashing of Iran’s forces of moderation.
Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council, and author of “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.”