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This Is Not What Containment Looks Like

“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, the so-called “Iran Threat Reduction Act” advanced by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. The resolution, put forward by the chairwoman of the committee, Florida Republican Ileana … Continued

“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, the so-called “Iran Threat Reduction Act” advanced by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. The resolution, put forward by the chairwoman of the committee, Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has 349 co-signers, more than enough to pass a House vote. Other sanctions targeting Iran's petrochemical and financial sectors are expected to go into effect the week of Thanksgiving. HR1905 will increase sanctions on Iran and limit U.S. contact with Iranian officials, and pressure to enact it will be strengthened by the release of a November IAEA report that has been seized on by Iran hawks as proof that Iran has been secretly developing nuclear weapons since 2003.

But Congress is not really interested in discussing the matter with Iran. One of the measures bans virtually all contact between U.S. and Iranian officials unless the president can certify to Congress – at least 15 days in advance – that not meeting these people “would pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the vital national security interests of the United States.” The bill targets not only Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but justifies sanctions for “other purposes” as well – amounting to what William O. Beeman calls an agenda of “making certain that the United States and Iran never achieve formal relations.”

But why bother with that when we do in fact want regime change, which would please the U.S. government, as well as the two main lobbying groups behind HR1905, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD)?

Unwanted and Unnecessary

Thomas R. Pickering, 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,” they write. “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 for UNESCO and USAID to punish Ramallah's UN bid, while hardly skipping a beat to maintain the flow of funding to Palestinian Authority security forces.

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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 civilian passengers, Iranian and non-Iranian alike, as evidenced by Iran’s poor air safety record.

Another measure, as journalist Jim Lobe notes, may merely cripple Iran's economy by sanctioning the Iranian Central Bank. The UK is already now moving to take steps in this direction alongside Canada and the U.S.

Regime Change Amnesia

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 HR1905, which is filled with references to advancing “democracy” and “freedom” in Iran, Paul asked if Congress was not also seeking to use the new sanctions to increase support for anti-regime movements in Iran.

It's a rhetorical question, of course. Regime change is on many people's minds – and maybe we can do it solely by air these days? – even though the history of U.S. support for opposition movements in Iran constitutes a poor record indeed. If anonymous “CIA” sources are to be believed, the U.S. cannot even protect its spies in Iran (let alone dissidents and demonstrators). 2011 is not 1953, though Iranians and Americans (not to mention Arabs and Israelis) are still paying the price for that year of regime change: a combined effort by the British, the CIA, the Shah and, yes, Iran's future “revolutionary” clerics.

Our willingness to cast aside opposition movements we offer “moral support” to was demonstrated right on Iran’s doorstep when in 1991, the United States turned away from a Shia revolt against Saddam Hussein in southern Iraq that ended a series of Shia massacres. At the other end of the country, the United States did enforce a no-fly zone over Kurdish territories. Not that this removed Saddam Hussein from power – it did, though, keep the Kurds in a tense state of limbo with Saddam's military and help maintain U.S. sanctions that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from malnutrition before 2003.

A Restriction without Precedent

Would the collapse of the Iron Curtain (and all those accompanying regime changes in Eastern Europe) have happened the way they did if U.S. officials were restricted from meeting with any Warsaw Pact member states' officials, or if the United States were still refusing in 1980 to even recognize the Soviet Union (as it did from 1917 to 1933)? It is hard to estimate what role the U.S. had on these events, but the fact is that the U.S. was not deliberately isolating itself or American citizens from all but a handful of exiles during the 1980s: Reagan himself even went to Moscow, only a few years after calling the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire.”

Ironically, one of the think tanks supporting this effort to isolate Iranian and U.S. officials from each other is the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). It's ironic because some of the politicians associated with the FDD seem to think of themselves as latter-day Reaganites; apostles to the Iranians (similar to how Reagan saw himself as an apostle to the Russians). Senator Mark Kirk, a hawkish Illinois Republican, even suggested that the United States should publicize the plight of Iranian political prisoners as Reagan did in the 1980s with Soviet dissidents.

For a man who thinks of the FDD as a 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. The FDD is vocal about the need for regime change in the Middle East, especially in Iran. The FDD is so hawkish that some of these aforementioned intellectuals have even called for a U.S. military takeover of Saudi oil fields.

Given all the fuss over Obama's actions over Libya, though, one would think that “peaceful” regime change advocates aligned with spendthrift Republicans would be all for dialogue to move towards eventual regime change (especially when U.S.-based multinational corporations are all for it – see below). Reagan rattled the saber a lot, but he also went to Reykjavík and Moscow to talk with Gorbachev, something not played up in the interventionist mentality of those now claiming his mantle. But Iran is viewed, despite assertions to the countrary, as a country that is even more intractable and inscrutable than the USSR.

The United States did not always have relations with the Soviet Union. It was a contentious issue, and not until FDR came along did the United States 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 he had left it to Congress – always worried about appearing weak before Eastern European voters – to decide who gets to meet with whom in advance. As Paul Pillar points out at the National Interest, the Cuban Missile Crisis might not have been able to conform to such a schedule.

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. Though it’s mostly under the radar, Halliburton and the sons of Fred C. Koch – yes, the Koch brothers – have also worked to limit U.S. sanctions on Iran.

And, oddly enough for those politicians 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 Soviet Union 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) 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.

No Label

Normalized U.S. relations with Iran will not likely come about at the urging of Wal-Mart, but stranger things have happened. Nor is such a corporatist path to diplomatic normalization even desirable (e.g., the People's Republic of China: Bill Clinton's establishment of permanent normal trade relations with the PRC has not proven to be the boon for Chinese democracy that neoliberals ostensibly hoped for). Rather, U.S. conservatives, liberals, and neoconservatives alike demonstrate numerous inconsistencies in dealing with Iran, despite our ostensible commitment to “engagement” with the country and “respect” for its people.

What we are doing today is not the sort of “containment” we reverently credit (rightly or wrongly) with keeping the Cold War from turning into World War III. What we are doing today does not even merit a label, because there is no coherent policy – just a series of actions lurching toward a potential regional war that would, if it occurred, draw in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The latter two are just itching for a preemptive strike on Iran.

Yet the U.S. military is reluctant to do just that. Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who revealed in 2010 that the U.S. does indeed have a plan to attack Iran's suspected nuclear sites, has nonentheless urged U.S. officials to increase diplomatic contacts with Iran. Congress is not having any of it, though. The language HR1905 really makes one wonder just who exactly Congress is listening to these days on Iran.

HR1905’s restrictions on whom the president can receive from Iran would probably not survive a constitutional challenge from the White House. But all of the bill’s sanctions will likely 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.

This article has been edited to reflect new developments since its original publication.

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