This is not what containment looks like

US Politics
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“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.

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