I a recent New York Times op-ed, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq Ryan Crocker recounted the co-operation that had begun to develop between the U.S. and Iran in Afghanistan in 2001. The U.S. invasion in October of that year had removed a common enemy, the Taliban government that had sheltered al Qaeda, and the opportunity arose for continued and deeper cooperation.
The U.S. and Iran "forged agreements on various security issues and coordinated approaches to reconstruction," Crocker wrote. "And then, suddenly, it all came to an end when President George W. Bush gave his famous 'Axis of Evil' speech in early 2002." Hawks in Washington adored the speech for its "moral clarity." But in terms of actually advancing U.S. interests, the speech was a disaster.
"The Iranian leadership concluded that in spite of their co-operation with the American war effort, the United States remained implacably hostile to the Islamic Republic," Crocker wrote. "Real co-operation effectively ceased after the speech and the costs were immediate."
The speech also dramatically undermined political moderates inside Iran. In a 2007 piece, scholars Daniel Heradstveit and G. Matthew Bonham found a strong consensus that the aggressive tone of Bush's speech had been "a godsend to the conservatives and ultra-conservatives" who found all of their beliefs about American hostility affirmed by Bush's rhetorical flourish. According to one Iranian reformer, the speech "gave the right-wingers the chance to say, 'If they want to hurt us, then we'll hurt them.'"
One of the Obama administration's most important initiatives upon taking office was to demonstrate to Iranians, and to the world, that the U.S. was not the problem, and that it was the Iranian government's recalcitrance, not America's hostility, that was the key factor in the international dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Repeated entreaties to the Iranian people, letters to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and multiple rounds of talks with the P5+1 successfully put the focus on Iran, rather than the U.S., and facilitated the creation of a strong international sanctions coalition that inflicted considerable pressure on Iran's economy.
One can disagree on precisely how much of a factor the sanctions played in Iran's decision to come back to the negotiating table, but there's no question – unless one believes that all the members of the P5+1 are lying – that the Iranian representatives have engaged in the most recent talks in Geneva in a far more serious and substantive way than they have in the past. The administration of President Hassan Rouhani clearly has a mandate, both from the Iranian people, and, more importantly from Iran's Supreme Leader, who is the ultimate decision maker in Iran's system, to pursue a deal that loosens the economic pressure in exchange for concessions on its nuclear program.
Unfortunately, many hawks in Washington seem prepared to once again offer Iran's hawks an excuse to pull the plug on talks once again. Having insisted for years that sanctions, and only sanctions, could change Iranian behaviour and bring them to the negotiating table, Washington's hawks seem unable to pause their efforts in order to give time and space for those negotiations to succeed, but rather want to press ahead with even more sanctions. This raises legitimate questions as to whether those who've supported sanctions this whole time are actually committed to a negotiated solution, or only see sanctions as a necessary prelude to military action.
Pausing on sanctions "is a decision to support diplomacy and a possible peaceful resolution to this issue," said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday. "The American people do not want a march to war," he said.
"Additional sanctions are unnecessary and could put us in a more difficult spot," former State Department arms control envoy Robert Einhorn told Foreign Policy magazine. "It would play into the arguments of Iranian hardliners that the U.S. isn't interested in a nuclear deal. It would also have the broader international impact of portraying us in a less reasonable light than the Iranians and thereby eroding support for sanctions."
In other words, piling more sanctions on now could fracture the coalition whose unity has been essential in making the sanctions effective. It would also once again affirm and empower hardline factions who remain convinced that Rouhani's engagement efforts will not advance Iranian security, and await any opportunity to declare his initiative a failure. Hopefully Washington's hardliners won't give them this gift again.