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Why WaPo Gets the Iran Sanctions Fight Wrong

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With the fight over whether to pile on more Iran sanctions heating up in D.C., the Washington Post has weighed in. It will not come as a surprise to regular readers of the editorial board that the paper is holding its usual liberal-hawk line: the editors tacitly endorse Congress’s push for more pressure on Iran.

Their reasoning is two-fold. The latter argument has to do with the imprisoned Post Tehran correspondent, Jason Rezaian, whom I consider a friend as well as an exemplary colleague. By the Post‘s lights, Jason’s ordeal is a provocation and an attempt to use the Iranian-American reporter as a pawn in the nuclear talks. Though that fact has not been established, it is, as the Post editors note, a conclusion that is difficult to escape. Let me, then, add my voice again to the chorus calling for Jason’s unconditional release from unjust imprisonment.

The problem with the Post‘s editorial, however, arises from the line it draws from Jason’s detention and other alleged Iranian provocations—namely, the announcement of plans to build two more nuclear plants—to Congress’s proposed sanctions. “If tactics such as that,” writes the Post, “do not ruin the chance of an agreement, then neither should action by Congress.”

Except that the proposed Congressional action would be a direct affront to the twice-extended interim deal struck between Iran and world powers in November 2013. That deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), calls on the U.S. and its partners—France, the U.K., Russia, China and Germany, the so-called P5+1—to “pause efforts to further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales.” And yet the new sanctions proposed by hawkish senators would precisely be an effort in this direction—while neither Jason’s detention nor the new nuclear facilities would violate the letter of the deal (as the Post itself acknowledges in the latter case). That’s why President Obama has already threatened to veto new sanctions legislation.

“The logic of that argument has always been a little hard to follow, since the measure the Senate is likely to take up,” the Post comments, “would mandate new sanctions only if Iran failed to accept an agreement by the June 30 deadline established in the ongoing talks.” The editors go on to note that, in the face of Iran’s actions, “the Obama administration argues that countervailing pressure would somehow be a deal breaker.”

But this is not the Obama administration’s argument: it is the Iranians’. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was clear on this way back in December 2013, when the journalist Robin Wright, for an interview in Time Magazine, asked, “What happens if Congress imposes new sanctions, even if they don’t go into effect for six months?” Zarif was unequivocal: “The entire deal is dead.”

Perhaps the Post editors think, more than a year later, that this paradigm no longer applies. Or maybe they think the Iranians are bluffing. Either way, it’s dishonest by omission to pretend that Obama’s reticence to see new sanctions emanates from some unfounded overabundance of caution, rather than the on-the-record responses of Iran’s top negotiator to precisely the question of delayed-trigger sanctions.

The Post owes it to its readers to make this issue in the ongoing sanctions fight clear. And the editorial board ought to come out and say it if they don’t think the Iranians’ threat to back out of talks is serious—and then lay out all the attendant risks of calling their bluff.

As for Jason’s plight, his fate may be unjustly tied to the nuclear talks, but prematurely killing diplomacy certainly won’t help secure his freedom.

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