AIPAC-championed amendment pushes Obama into a corner on Iran

Israel/PalestineMiddle EastUS Politics
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Hormuz map
The red arrow points to the Straits of Hormuz, a focal point in US-Iran tensions today.
(Map via Wikipedia)

President Obama is set to sign legislation attached to a military spending bill that would impose harsh sanctions on Iran over its nuclear energy program. The AIPAC-championed bill, known as the Kirk-Menendez amendment, has pushed the Obama administration into a corner, forcing the administration to maneuver between appeasing the Israel lobby while at the same time making sure that the new sanctions don’t batter the weak U.S. economy by spiking oil prices. And in the meantime, Iran has responded forcefully.

The New York Times ran this story yesterday on the escalating tensions between Iran and the U.S.:

A senior Iranian official on Tuesday delivered a sharp threat in response to economic sanctions being readied by the United States, saying his country would retaliate against any crackdown by blocking all oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital artery for transporting about one-fifth of the world’s oil supply.

The declaration by Iran’s first vice president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, came as President Obama prepares to sign legislation that, if fully implemented, could substantially reduce Iran’s oil revenue in a bid to deter it from pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

Prior to the latest move, the administration had been laying the groundwork to attempt to cut off Iran from global energy markets without raising the price of gasoline or alienating some of Washington’s closest allies.

Apparently fearful of the expanded sanctions’ possible impact on the already-stressed economy of Iran, the world’s third-largest energy exporter, Mr. Rahimi said, “If they impose sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, then even one drop of oil cannot flow from the Strait of Hormuz,” according to Iran’s official news agency. Iran just began a 10-day naval exercise in the area.

The escalation in tension came as The Daily Beast‘s Eli Lake reported that the U.S., worried about Israel striking Iran unilaterally, “is trying to assure Israel privately that it would strike Iran militarily if Tehran’s nuclear program crosses certain ‘red lines.'”

Josh Rogin, who blogs at Foreign Policy, explained on MSNBC the high-stakes surrounding the Kirk-Menendez amendment, and also said the Obama administration was “forced” into signing the bill (though he didn’t say by whom). Here’s Rogin:

The Obama administration has been trying to avoid ramping up the confrontational tone with Iran, especially in an election year. The last thing they want to do is provoke a crisis.

And unfortunately, they’ve been forced into signing this new sanctions bill. It’s the Kirk-Menendez bill which puts crippling sanctions on the central bank of Iran. And not only that, it forces the U.S. to sanction third countries who do business. We’re talking about any country around the world. That’s every country, including allies like Japan and South Korea.

The administration is in a tough spot here. They have to enforce the sanctions. They have some leeway. But now is the battle over these third countries. And that’s what Iran is doing here.

They’re sending a message to all these countries around the world, if you follow these U.S. sanctions, we’re going to punish you. If you don’t follow these U.S. sanctions, the U.S. is going to punish you.

It puts all these countries into a horrible situation, a lose/lose scenario. And that’s exactly what the administration was trying to avoid…

Back here in Washington, the American economy will suffer if we put crippling sanctions on Iran that poised of course, world oil markets into disarray, that raise gas prices, and the Obama administration doesn’t trust that the average voter is going to draw the distinction between the benefits of delaying Iran’s nuclear program and the higher prices at the gas tank. It’s really a tough one to explain and it’s really a discussion they don’t want to have heading into their presidential election. It’s just not a good idea for them.

The important challenge for the Obama administration will be finding a way to both enforce the sanctions and prevent the oil markets from going haywire while keeping the lobby quiet in an election year where Iran will be an issue. But it’s clear the U.S. and Iran are hurtling closer to war, and this amendment is a key reason why. Stephen Walt recently explained why a U.S. war posture like this is dangerous:

The danger here is that if you keep repeating that preventive war against Iran is necessary, people gradually become comfortable with the idea and assume that it is going to occur eventually. In fact, if we beat the war drums for months but don’t attack, you can be confident that people like [Matthew] Kroenig will then argue that U.S. credibility is on the line and we have to strike, lest those dangerous Iranians conclude we are paper tigers.

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