Haaretz Interview with Congressional Iran Hawk Howard Berman

For the moment, set aside the actual prospects for a negotiated deal that would end the West’s standoff with Iran over its nuclear program. Such a deal, no matter its contours, will almost certainly face opposition from Capitol Hill. Look no further than the  bipartisan (tri-partisan?) letter signed by six Senators demanding a negotiated outcome with zero domestic Iranian enrichment, which is their proposed precondition for the negotiations — and almost certainly a deal-breaker for the Iranians.

For a glimpse into this view, particularly in terms of staunch pro-Israel Democrats, read what the archetype of this group, outgoing chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee California Rep. Howard Berman, has to say. Berman gave an interesting interview to the Israeli daily Haaretz where, at times getting combative (literally), he reveals some of the thinking behind the even timid support of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Iran policy.

Let’s start with a minor quibble, but a big picture one. Seeking something to praise in U.S. foreign policy, Berman cites engagement with the Muslim world:

By and large, I think that to have a war with a billion Muslims is not a viable policy. We have to engage with the forces of modernity in the Muslim world. We have to separate moderates from extremists, and engagement that is designed to achieve that makes compelling sense to me.

The “separate” stuff is pure imperial divide-and-conquer strategy. For many of the hardline pro-Israel types, the idea that U.S. policy plays any role in creating enmity toward the U.S. is sacrilegious. In their view the U.S. must, therefore, consolidate its supporters, rather than alleviate legitimate grievances among those who don’t. And the qualifier “by and large,” which means “generally,” is troubling: it implies there could be specific situations where going to “war with a billion Muslims” would conceivably be sound policy.

But never mind my harping on tragically misplaced turns of phrase, let’s look at what Berman had to say about Iran policy. First and foremost, of course, is that the “military option” — let’s call it ‘attacking Iran’ — is “on the table” (interviewer Natasha Mozgovaya’s questions are bolded by me):

Israeli politicians are wondering why the U.S. administration took the military option off the table, even if they didn’t say so explicitly.

The military option is not off the table. It’s on the table.

The Iranians apparently don’t think so.

Who knows what they really think?

Berman goes on to discuss why he thinks that the international diplomacy and the posture of engaging Iran is useful: because it builds “international support”:

We don’t know if the current strategy is going to work. We do know that two years ago we had the most limited, worthless set of multilateral sanctions on Iran that were not enforced, and all the U.S. efforts to make them stronger were to no avail. And the U.S. position on Iran was not the international position, the U.S. was isolated and everyone wrote that Iran is rising in influence.

Two years later we have tough sanctions at the Security Council, and the U.S. and Europeans imposed more far-reaching sanctions. We have evidence it’s causing pain in Tehran inside the regime, Iran feels the pressure and is isolated, and the U.S. position as a result of this administration’s policies has developed international support.

What we don’t know yet is if it will change the regime’s behavior on the nuclear issue. But we are in a much better position to create that change than we were two years ago. And we need to stay very resolved on this, we need to impose sanctions on companies that are undermining our efforts, and we need to build even more international support. This is an example of this administration’s effective use of diplomacy.

One might be forgiven for thinking that an effective use of diplomacy would be to negotiate a deal with the Iran to resolve the nuclear impasse. But for Berman, the focus of diplomacy seems only to serve the cause of isolating Tehran with sanctions. This ambiguity is something U.S. Institute of Peace expert Daniel Brumberg and the Stimson Center’s Barry Blechman took issue with in a recent article on Foreign Policy‘s website:

If, as administration officials insist, sanctions are a “means rather than an end,” we need to define that end far more clearly. If it is stopping Iran’s nuclear program, then let’s be clear: sanctions may be slowing that program down, but by themselves they will not compel Iran’s leaders to comply with the International Atomic Energy Commission or the UN Security Council. To get the attention of Iran’s current leaders, we must decide whether the goal of sanctions (or for that matter, engagement) is to set the stage for war or for sustained peace negotiations.

Clearly for Berman, sanctions — including diplomacy aimed at more rigid sanctions — are an end in and of themselves, though they could be the prelude to something far more daunting: the prospect of war with Iran. Most experts, including Brumberg and Blechman, agree that sanctions and isolation are unlikely to end the nuclear impasse with Iran. The only way to do that, one might surmise, is a negotiated deal, which will require concessions that we can be sure Congressional Iran hawks will balk at.

Berman’s perspective only lends credibility to those critics who questioned whether engagement was ever earnestly tried by the Obama administration. If the Obama foreign policy is based on Berman’s line, it’s likely those critics correctly analyzed the administration’s position.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.