On Capitol Hill, some proponents of the now-botched sanctions bill against Iran are still licking their wounds. It’s been just a few weeks since the flags had to be folded, and an announcement of surrender – temporary, some of them insist on repeating – had to be issued. Legislators supportive of the bill seem frustrated, even if they do understand the decision to concede defeat. The leaders of AIPAC have little time for mourning and an urgent need to plan ahead: AIPAC’s annual policy conference is coming next week, along with a visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington, and with the new sanctions option gone, something else has to fill the void and provide the thousands of delegates with a lobbying agenda, a lobbying agenda that is about Iran.
The story of the shelved sanctions bill is one of miscalculation. Its proponents didn’t quite foresee the herculean effort made by the administration to block their bill. And how could they? In most previous cases of congressional involvement in foreign affairs, President Obama chose a 'hands off' approach. Case in point: the Syrian episode, where the president, having announced his desire for congressional approval for action, retired to play golf.
So there is a certain irony to the double failure of pro-Israel legislators and the pro-Israel lobby in meeting their goals in recent months on both Syria and Iran. In the first case, the lobby didn’t quite understand that it was launching a war on behalf of the president without much backing. Obama made a request for assistance in convincing Congress to approve action against Syria, and then pretty much disappeared – he didn’t even lead the effort from behind. But when a reasonable deduction ensued – that Obama doesn’t have the will to fight congressional battles of this sort, and that it would thus be possible to pass an Iran sanctions bill – a much stronger-willed President suddenly appeared, opposing the bill, opposing it even though the bill was deliberately written in way that would not make new sanctions kick in for half a year, presumably enough time for the US and Iran to negotiate a diplomatic solution.
Surely, it is still the case that when a President calls legislators of his own party into the Oval Office and tells them that voting for sanctions probably means war – one can hardly expect them not to give the president his due. It is curious, though, that Obama took the time and made the effort with Iran, but never with Syria. Curious - because it enables the observer to differentiate between true intentions and rhetoric in the White House's (and State Department's) latest rounds of propaganda.
Since the collapse of the Geneva talks over Syria, the administration has been airing its frustration with the no-result of that diplomatic effort by spreading the blame around. Syria’s President Assad is the chief villain, of course, having failed to follow John Kerry’s script for him and deciding to stick to his guns. Russia’s President Putin is the enabler of Assad’s rigidity, having decided to play a role which Kerry deems “unconstructive”. Naturally, Putin sees things quite differently: he knows he is playing a very constructive role in keeping the Assad regime alive, which was his clear intention all along.
That the Obama administration was duped by Assad and Putin is no great secret and no big surprise. In fact, from the villains’ perspective – Assad being the main villain of the heart breaking Syrian saga, and Putin the cold-hearted enabler – they weren’t even disingenuous with Kerry. Their understanding of the deal they agreed to with the Obama administration in the fall - following the administrations’ hollow threat of attack - was pretty clear to all the observers: Assad doesn’t get to keep his chemical arsenal, and does get to keep his position. The US gets an achievement in dismantling the chemical arsenal, and doesn’t get its other stated goal of forcing Assad out. From such a perspective, US anger with the murderous campaign might be authentic – but its surprise over Putin and Assad's insistence to keep playing their game is fake.
And once again, it is worth asking why the effort in Congress was made with Iran and never with Syria.
One possible explanation: The administration doesn’t really care about Syria, and doesn’t see halting the bloodshed as an essential ingredient of its policy. There are good reasons to believe that Iran is a much more profound issue, and hence there is reason to put more effort in it than in Syria. If that is indeed the case, it is no wonder that the administrations’ rhetoric regarding Syria fails to impress its addressee.
Another possible explanation: The administration believes that in Syria there is no chance for success, and a high chance of failure, while with Iran there are much better prospects for a true achievement. Look at it this way: best case scenario with Syria is an end to the civil war and a regime other than Assad’s attempting to govern the country. Best case scenario with Iran is an end to the US’ hostile relations with a regime that many Americans consider the most hostile of all, and one of the most dangerous. Even if these two outcomes seem unlikely, the administration might still want to play for the bigger prize.
And another one: With Syria there was no pressure. The public didn’t want action. With Iran the story is different – the public wants negotiations. The administration felt that it had a much better card with which to fight to have its way against the proponents of sanctions’ legislation.
And the last one: With Syria, the administration had no real policy except for saving face and not being seen as too weak. The President and his team never really cared how the impasse is surmounted, as long as they could put on some show of reasonable success (no chemicals). With Iran there is a goal, and it is twofold: to really try and get something from the negotiations. Or, in the case of unsuccessful negotiations, to run the clock for the next three years by having more and more unmet deadlines, more and more rounds of unfruitful negotiations. New sanctions deadlines set for a year from now, or even a year and a half, would make it more difficult for the administration to calmly pass the time until the next administration comes in.
So what can be the agenda of the opponents of delay and proponents of actions that matter? I imagine that AIPAC delegates are going to be asked to set the terms of success and failure in negotiations and to lay the ground for the next round of battles. Speeches and Op-Ed's are a good way of achieving this, but I imagine there might also be something like a Congressional letter. That is, a letter with as many signatures as possible of Congress members being put on the record stating what constitutes a “good deal” with Iran and what they would consider a “bad deal” that would have to be rejected.