Feb. 10, 2016 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Khamenei's Little Helpers in the Senate | Commentary

Unbeknownst to Senators Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Iranís hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is rooting for them as they challenge President Barack Obama over new Iran sanctions. Tehranís hardliners cunningly hope to benefit from Kirk and Menendezís sabotage of diplomacy. Hereís 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 Obamaís 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 Obamaís 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 Tehranís 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 isnít in control of policy. Thanks to Kirk and Menendezís zeal for sanctions, hardliners in Iran now say precisely that about negotiating with Obama.

Second, sanctions advocates argue that more sanctions would further pressure Iranís 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. Ė and not Iran Ė 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 Ė but without Iran giving any nuclear concessions. This is the cost of Congress overplaying its hand Ė 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 Rouhaniís election. The population forced their will onto the regime, realizing that the regimeís 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 Rouhaniís 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.

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