This is not what containment looks like

US Politics
on 33 Comments

“To strengthen Iran sanctions laws for the purpose of compelling Iran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and other threatening activities, and for other purposes,” begins HR1905, aka the 2011 “Iran Threat Reduction Act“ that has been advanced in the House of Representatives this week by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  It will increase sanctions on Iran and limit U.S. contact with Iranian citizens, and pressure to enact it will be strengthened by the release of an IAEA report today asserting that Iran has been secretly developing nuclear weapons (and a delivery system for them) since 2003.

But Congress is not really interested in discussing the matter with Iran. One of its measures requires the President to certify that any Iranian official the U.S. wishes to speak to pass a 15 days in advance Congressional background check unless the President can prove there is an urgent need for the White House to meet with that person. The “other purposes” amounts to what William O. Beeman calls an agenda of “making certain that the United States and Iran never achieve formal relations.”

Why bother with that, after all, when we want regime change (which would please the U.S. government, as well as two of the lobbying groups behind HR1905, AIPAC and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies).

Thomas R. Pickering, formerly Ronald Reagan’s second-term ambassador to Israel (and later George H. W. Bush’s UN ambassador) has come out against the move, writing an op-ed with fellow Reagan-era ambassador William H. Luers in the Daily Beast that denounces the move as a step towards an unwanted and unnecessary military conflict with Iran:

“It is fair to say that no official of the U.S. government has any direct knowledge of the Iran of today. That ignorance of this powerful adversary dangerously weakens our ability to know how to achieve U.S. objectives and protect U.S. interests.”

That should be self-evident, but this bill came from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is fine with cutting funding to UNESCO and USAID to punish Ramallah’s UN bid while maintaining with only limited interruption the flow of funding set aside for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces. We do have priorities, after all (what exactly they are, though, is not exactly clear).

This disconnect between the goal and reality of sanctions is seen in one of the hardest-hitting sanctions, a measure that will block Iranian civil aviation from obtaining replacement parts for their passenger aircraft. This will punish Iranian officials – who have access to military transport – how? Fewer holiday vacations? Longer lines at the check-in counter? It certainly punishes Iranian and non-Iranian civilian passengers, as Iran’s air safety record is poor.

Another measure, as Jim Lobe notes, may merely cripple Iran’s economy by sanctioning the Iranian Central Bank.

Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican presidential candidate, is as incredulous as the Reaganites quoted above, reiterating his August 2011 argument that “At least our leaders and Reagan talked to the Soviets. What’s so terribly bad about this [talking to the Iranians]?” In response to the Iran Threat Reduction Act, which is filled with references to advancing “democracy” and “freedom” in Iran, Paul asked if Congress was not simply seeking to fund an anti-regime movement to take to the streets, regardless of the likelihood of success.

It’s a rhetorical question. Regime change is on everyone’s mind, even though U.S. support for such movements constitutes a poor record indeed.

Would the collapse of the Iron Curtain (and all those accompanying regime changes that didn’t cost the Pentagon even one bullet) have happened they way they did if U.S. officials were restricted from meeting with Warsaw Pact member states’ citizens, or if the U.S. was still refusing in 1980 to even recognize the USSR (as it did from 1917 to 1933)?

Ironically, one of the organizations supportive of this effort to isolate Iranian and U.S. officials from each other is the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). It’s ironic because some of the politicians associated with the FDD seem to think of themselves (and the organization) as latter-day Reaganites:

“Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) . . . argued that President Obama should reach out to exiled members of the Iranian opposition Green Movement, increase aid to Iranian democracy groups, and make Iranian political prisoners ‘household names throughout America’ like President Ronald Reagan did with Soviet detainees in the 1980s.”

For a man who thinks of the FDD as the possible forum for an Iranian version of the Helsinki Accords, Kirk seems to be ignoring the fact that the FDD has some in-house intellectuals who reject dialogue altogether with Iran (Reagan didn’t just talk to Soviet dissidents, you know). The FDD is vocal about regime change in the Middle East, especially in Iran, and how it cannot occur through diplomacy – the FDD is so hawkish that some of these aformentioned intellectuals have even called for a U.S. military takeover of Saudi oil fields.

The historical vaccum this politicking is taking place in is telling. The U.S. had diplomatic relations with the USSR in the 1980s and that Congress did not impugn Ronald Reagan’s capacity to engage Soviet officials (can you imagine Congress forcing Reagan to submit all his planned meeting agendas with Soviet officials for review 15 days in advance?). Their meetings didn’t in and of themselves end the Cold War and lead to the collapse of the USSR, but they were a part of that process – you’d think “peaceful” regime change advocates aligned with spendthrift Republicans would be all for dialogue. Reagan rattled the saber a lot, but he also went to Reykjavík and Moscow – something not played up in the guns blazing, Fifth Fleet steaming on ahead mentality of those claiming his mantle.

The U.S. did not always have relations with the USSR, though. It was a contentious issue and not until FDR came along did the U.S. formally recognize the USSR in 1933. It would have been pretty difficult for Reagan to meet with Gorbachev (or Eisenhower with Khrushchev, or Nixon with Brezhnev) if they left it to Congress – always worried about appearing weak before Eastern European voters – to decide who gets to meet with who.

Also often left out of that narrative is how badly industrialists like Henry Ford and Fred C. Koch wanted to conduct business with the USSR with the U.S. government’s assurances behind their operations. This is not unlike how we do not hear too much about how Halliburton and the sons of Fred C. Koch have worked to limit U.S. sanctions on Iran.

And, oddly enough for those against economic relations with Iran, economic entanglement did prove to be an effective tool in Washington’s arsenal for contributing to the Soviet collapse. The USSR had become so dependent on Western purchases of its oil (paid for in foreign currency that went to buy grain and service the country’s growing debt servicing) that by the mid-1980s, international oil prices and Soviet mismanagement had severely handicapped one of Moscow’s fiscal cornerstones.

Indeed, the ripple effect of the measures aimed at Iran’s Central Bank (and energy sector) may provoke an international and corporate outcry against the legislation: the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), a trade association comprising such titans of globalization as Boeing, Chevron, Microsoft, AIG and Halliburton, opposes the new sanctions, as well as preexisting ones (the NFTC holds that trade liberalization will help prompt reforms in Iran).

I doubt that normal diplomatic relations with Iran may one day come about at the urging of Wal-Mart, but stranger things have happened. Nor am I arguing that such a corporatist path to diplomatic normalization is advisable (i.e., the People’s Republic of China scenario). I am simply noting the inconsistencies displayed by U.S. conservatives, liberals and neoconservatives in dealing with Iran despite our ostensible commitment to “engagement” with the country and “respect” for it’s people.

What we are doing today is not the sort of “containment” we revere when discussing how we kept the Cold War from turning into WWIII. What we are doing today does not even merit a label, because there is no coherent policy, just a series of actions lurching towards an potential regional war that would, if it occured, draw in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Saudi Arabia (the latter two are just itching for preemption).

I imagine the sanctions (if not the Congressional notification for meetings) will become law, especially with the new IAEA report now out. After all, who cares about airline safety, or diplomatic relations?

Or averting a third Gulf War.

Note: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated that the Iran Threat Reduction Act had passed the House. It has only been advanced by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

About Paul Mutter

Paul Mutter is a contributor to Mondoweiss, Foreign Policy in Focus and the Arabist.

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33 Responses

  1. lysias
    November 8, 2011, 4:30 pm

    Isn’t this legislation an unconstitutional attempt to limit the powers the President has under the Constitution? Isn’t his ability to conduct diplomacy an essential part of his presidential powers?

    • pineywoodslim
      November 8, 2011, 5:21 pm

      Yes, I think it is as well. Though if Obama ignored the bill Congress would make political hay out of it.

      But really, how many times recently has anyone from this administration actually met with an Iranian official?

      • RoHa
        November 8, 2011, 7:16 pm

        “But really, how many times recently has anyone from this administration actually met with an Iranian official?”

        You want them to catch Iranian germs/cooties?

      • eljay
        November 8, 2011, 8:57 pm

        >> But really, how many times recently has anyone from this administration actually met with an Iranian official?

        Who needs to meet with Iranians when it’s clear that they’re nothing but Holocaust-denying, freedom-hating, genocidal Persian Arab terrrrrists?

        And the more you threaten to bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age, the more they try to get nukes up and running! I mean, who DOES stuff like that, unless they’re evil?!

      • RoHa
        November 8, 2011, 10:09 pm

        “Who needs to meet with Iranians when it’s clear that they’re nothing but Holocaust-denying, freedom-hating, genocidal Persian Arab terrrrrists?”

        Don’t forget swarthy, unshaven, wild-eyed, and fanatical.

        Their latest manifestation of evil is manipulating the weather to deny the Golbal Warming story.

        (Watch that video carefully. At 7 seconds, 1.32, 1nd 2.12 you will see evidence that the Iranians are armed to the teeth with nuclear umbrellas.)
        They won’t wear ties, either.

    • Charon
      November 8, 2011, 5:25 pm

      If this was a bill for any other country, the president would step in and say just that. In this case arguing against it would be seen as anti-Israel. Still, Obama shouldnt even care. Romney or Perry aren’t going to get the electoral majority even with ‘the Jewish vote’ behind them. I’d like to see Paul get a shot but that is highly unlikely considering the powerful smear against him.

      Obama should just find a way to spin this as another example where congress in undermining his power. Use it as an example to push the beginning of the end of the antiquated legislative branch. These people aren’t elected by us nor do they look out for us. Not in reality

    • Paul Mutter
      November 8, 2011, 10:53 pm

      You are correct. I had originally included a paragraph explaining how it likely violates an article in the Constitution about receiving foreign emissaries, but took it out to streamline the article commentary.

      • Paul Mutter
        November 8, 2011, 11:08 pm

        ^By you, I’m referring to “lysias”‘s comment at the top. Not sure why my response got bumped down here.

  2. Dan Crowther
    November 8, 2011, 4:32 pm

    Well, “containment” the first time around meant the destruction of Indo-China, the destruction of large parts of central and south america and the propping up of tyrannies everywhere from Indonesia to Chile.

    So, there is really nothing to “revere” there either

    Normal diplomatic relations with Iran might not “be advisable?” Really? Why?

    • Antidote
      November 8, 2011, 5:52 pm

      Normal diplomatic relations might be bad for business. Sanctions will force the Iranians to pay a lot more to get what they need. Nobody will sell at competitive prices, so sanctions might be a great way to eliminate competition. Various forms of bribery will also flourish, in different directions. If you’re rich and well connected enough you can still do business with Iran and get away with it, no matter what official policy is being loudly proclaimed in the US or Israel.

      link to nytimes.com

    • Paul Mutter
      November 8, 2011, 11:01 pm

      On your last point: I mean relations primarily achieved at the urging of business interests, since such a policy program would hardly benefit most Iranians, and be skewed towards dealing with the corrupt structures in place, of the sort “Antidote” notes below (this is the same trade association that says “free trade” with Beijing will produce democratic reforms in China). I did not mean normal diplomatic relations in general. I apologize for this caveat not being clear.

      • Dan Crowther
        November 9, 2011, 8:17 am

        Thanks for the response Paul. Cheers, brother.

  3. annie
    November 8, 2011, 4:44 pm

    phil wrote a post here the other day citing mjrosenberg’s article @ huffpo whichwas the 1st i heard of this draconian bill.

    Naturally, the United States Congress, which gets its marching orders on Middle East policy from the lobby which, in turn, gets its marching orders from Binyamin Netanyahu, is rushing to do what it is told.

    for the president to have to get permission from the most lobby infested committee in congress before diplomacy is allowed is puts the tail firmly in position to wag the dog.

    • James
      November 8, 2011, 5:52 pm

      this explains why obama has to talk with netanyahu every day..
      netanyahu says jump and obama says ‘how high?’ or something along these lines…

      what does it feel like to be run by a foreign country?

      usa foreign policy 101 for the un-educated, or un-imaginative…

  4. justicewillprevail
    November 8, 2011, 6:53 pm

    Another heavy dose of irony from the lobby. This has nothing to do with the containment of Iran, and everything to do with the containment of the US government. Liars (as Sarkozy characterised them) are working hard to make sure the US hasn’t a policy of its own, but merely carries out the Israeli mobsters’ wishes. They have forbidden the US to seek diplomatic solutions, or even talk to Iranians, to make sure that the only path the US can follow is one of Israel’s making – towards war. With ‘friends’ like these who needs enemies?

  5. ToivoS
    November 8, 2011, 7:17 pm

    A little OT. The Guardian has an article on the just released IAEI report. Their summary paragraph:

    In its report on Iran’s nuclear programme, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it had accumulated more than 1,000 pages of documentation that had let it to believe that suspected nuclear weapons work was done under a “structured programme” up to 2003, and that “some may still be ongoing”.

    Yes that is it. The 2007 NIE reported that Iran had discontinued its weapons program in 2003. The IAEI confirms that. But they add “some may still be ongoing”. That is it. There is really no evidence to support this, simply that it is a formal possibility — at least from the info in the article.

    This report is being used to to support a war against Iran. From a first glance there seems to be nothing here. Gareth Porter will likely have a thorough dissection up in a day or so. But in the meantime, for those arguing against this war, do not accept the war mongers claims concerning this report. The pre-release leaks were extremely misleading.

    • annie
      November 8, 2011, 8:05 pm

      toivo, there are some good links about this report onmoon of alabama.

      The New IAEA Report On Iran, “Nuclear Iran” Allegations: The Scary “R265 generator” Is Just Old Stuff, and On “Nuclear Iran” Allegations: Nanodiamonds Ain’t Nuclear Bombs.

      re the guardian article check the update on the last one about the nanodiamonds….evidently there were 2 guardian articles and after this posting on moon of alabama the guardian wrote a second article including the info. all the posts are really worth a read.

      • ToivoS
        November 8, 2011, 8:25 pm

        Annie Thanks for the link, first time I heard of Moon of Alabama. More technical stuff than I can digest, but those are the detailed expose’s that are going to be needed to derail the war mongers.

        It is certainly disconcerting to see the Guardian being infiltrated by the War Party like this. I suppose it is consistent with their campaign to demonize Assange — at heart they are inside the establishment. The liberal/progressive facade is needed to attract their readership.

      • lysias
        November 9, 2011, 11:46 am

        b has a new thread on Moon of Alabama: The IAEA Confirms My Nanodiamond Analysis .

      • annie
        November 9, 2011, 12:14 pm

        thanks for linking lysias. moa has been on my toolbar and has been since day one. rarely does a day pass i don’t check the site. i can’t figure out why b doesn’t have a twitter account. i tweeted his other related links yesterday.

      • lysias
        November 9, 2011, 4:39 pm

        b now has another thread up: The IAEA Report: A Dud With Little Consequences For Iran, which concludes quite optimistically:

        So what do I think is likely to happen. There will be a lot of chest thumping, some new unilateral U.S. sanctions on individuals and side issues that no one in Iran will care about. Sarkozy and Cameron may join in on that but the result will be nil. Israel will get some more money and will be told to shut up.

        In a year or two the show will be repeated with even less success.

        I do hope he’s right.

  6. stopaipac
    November 8, 2011, 7:30 pm

    “passed by the House of Representatives this week”? It is my understanding that it passed passed a House Committee, not that it passed a full vote from the entire House of Representatives. At least, with my search, there is no such news on the internet yet. If it has passed the House, what was the vote, where is the roll call?

    • Mayhem
      November 8, 2011, 8:36 pm

      I concur – seems like the US bashers have jumped the gun on this one.

    • annie
      November 8, 2011, 8:49 pm

      you’re right stopaipac, i think it just passed the house committee.

      • Paul Mutter
        November 8, 2011, 10:59 pm

        Yeah, my mistake. I misread the GovTrack page when I was going through the list of co-sponsors (349 + the Chairwoman of the House FA Comm.). It will be fixed.

      • lysias
        November 9, 2011, 11:41 am

        If it’s been passed by the committee and has 349 cosponsors, surely it’s just a matter of time before it passes the House.

  7. dumvitaestspesest
    November 8, 2011, 8:09 pm

    The world instead of becoming one, happy, big , global village is becoming one ,scary big , global village.
    It is run by a few mobsters and gangsters, who got chosen, (democratically), by ignorant public as their “representatives”, but their main concern is securing their own shady businesses, and their own behinds.
    They do not really care what the public thinks ,because, in general public does not like to think. The public likes to be led by their incompetent leaders, as long as the public has their basic needs fulfilled.
    We lost our vigilance, alert, ability to think on our own and act accordingly.
    We became put to sleep by poisonous media ,and everyday small and big worries or duties. We became divided, scattered,doped with meaningless pop culture. I’m afraid that a payday, for the years of indifference and ignorance, is coming. It’s knocking on our door.
    It is almost like we are trapped in this big , sticky net ,and the spiders are coming our way, and we can’t do anything about it.
    Except watching.

  8. Clif Brown
    November 8, 2011, 8:24 pm

    Reading of what the Knesset and the U.S. House are up to brings up a vision of two idiots joining hands to jump over a cliff together. The U.S. is the unquestioned superpower yet from the home-grown fanaticism, one would thing we are in mortal danger from a country floundering toward getting a single nuclear weapon of which we have many thousands. Iran doesn’t keep me awake at night. Israel does because it has tremendous destructive potential with a free pass from the US. Khrushchev famously said “we will bury you!” but it’s looking like we will bury ourselves.

  9. Redruin
    November 8, 2011, 9:25 pm

    I don’t understand what we hope to accomplish with our foreign policy towards Iran. Nor do I understand why we support Israel.

  10. James
    November 9, 2011, 12:35 am

    ot – interesting article some might want to read
    Former Mossad Chief Seeks to Avert Israeli Attack
    link to spiegel.de

  11. kalithea
    November 9, 2011, 3:07 am

    Obama to Sarkozy: “You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day.”

    Imagine the President of the United States being saddled with this ball and chain and not being able to move freely or take decisions that might be beneficial for the U.S. but that would constitute political suicide? ISRAEL IS NOT A REAL ALLY and Zionist influence has steered the U.S. in the wrong direction.

    There’s more to Obama’s statement loaded with frustration than meets the eye. Obama doesn’t only have to deal with Netanyahu every day; he has to deal with Israel “first-ers”…Zionists, every day too. Who can be free to exercise wisdom in regards to Iran and the Middle East with all the threats and whining coming from the Zio Fifth Column?

  12. dumvitaestspesest
    November 9, 2011, 6:46 am

    “…..When seen on a map of the world, the range of the Jericho III is definitely impressive. Israel can hit the vast majority of the Eastern Hemisphere at will, including targets as far away as Thailand, South Africa and Iceland!
    The International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei formally regards Israel as a state possessing nuclear weapons, and it can thus be concluded that although the full extent of its arsenal is likely to remain shrouded, Israel currently has nuclear weapons, and this number could be in the several hundreds: Definitely enough to render the entire Middle Eastern region uninhabitable for millennia.”
    link to hallicino.hubpages.com

  13. dumvitaestspesest
    November 9, 2011, 6:51 am

    “Russia says strike on Iran would be a ‘very serious mistake’
    From: AFP November 07, 2011 7:58PM
    RUSSIA has warned of the dire consequences of a possible military strike on Iran.
    “It would be a very serious mistake fraught with unpredictable consequences,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after indications from Israel President Shimon Peres that an attack was increasingly likely.
    “Military intervention only leads to a multiple rise in casualties and human suffering,” Lavrov said.
    “There can be no military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, just like there can be none for any other problem in the modern world.”
    Israel’s warning came ahead of this week’s expected presentation on a new report from the UN nuclear watchdog on Iran’s nuclear drive.
    Russia has urged Iran to improve its nuclear program transparency while trying to shield its Soviet-era ally from the most damaging sanctions and possible threat of war.
    Lavrov said current military campaigns such as the one being waged by NATO in Afghanistan proved the dangers of foreign involvement.
    “The use of force is only possible under two circumstances envisioned by the UN Charter,”he said.
    “Either through self defence, when you come under armed attack, or through a decision by the UN Security Council.”
    link to theaustralian.com.au

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