Making sense of Obama’s counter-intuitive approach to negotiations with Iran

Last week, President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron pleaded with Congress not to pass new sanctions legislation against Iran. Such legislation, which has strong bipartisan support, could undermine ongoing negotiations, they argued. “Just hold your fire” until we complete negotiations, Obama urged.

But Obama’s position seems nonsensical on its face. The sanctions legislation Congress contemplates passing does exactly what Obama instructs Congress to do. As the Washington Post’s editors remind us, the Menendez-Kirk legislation would impose sanctions only if Iran reaches no agreement before the June 30 deadline it previously agreed to. “Fire” is “held” until then.

If anything, as the Post argues, the legislation would make a deal with Iran more likely. For unless Obama is going to cave entirely (a definite possibility, sadly), Iran will have to make concessions. And Iran is more likely to make concessions if the consequence of no deal is a stepped-up sanction regime.

In other words, the legislation to which Obama objects would give him a bargaining chip. The fact that Obama doesn’t want one (he says he’d veto the Menendez-Kirk bill) should tell Congress that he’s not interested in playing hardball in negotiations with Iran.

Iran is playing hardball, though. It has manufactured two bargaining chips. First, it recently announced that is has begun the construction of two new nuclear reactors.

Second, Iran has referred the case of Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter held prisoner in Tehran, for processing by the “Revolutionary Court.” Rezaian has been denied basic humanitarian treatment by his captors — for example, his weight is down by 40 pounds, according to his mother — and has neither been informed of the charges against him nor allowed to consult with his lawyer, according to the Post.

Put simply, Rezaian is a hostage to the nuclear negotiations. And why not? The Castro brothers got what they wanted from Obama using the same approach.

As with Cuba, Iran is actually using a belt and suspenders approach. Obama has always wanted to lift sanctions on Cuba and he clearly wants a nuclear deal, any deal, with Iran. With Cuba, he was able to obtain the photo ops accompanying a prisoner release to make his concessions easier for Americans to swallow. The Rezaian captivity means that Obama may be able to do the same with a nuclear deal with Iran.

But Obama doesn’t want just any nuclear deal. Obama wants a deal Iran will feel good about so that he can make more deals with the ruling clerics. He sees Iran as the key to a grand bargain in the Middle East, one that will thwart ISIS and bring stability — on Iran’s terms — to the region. Israel, of course, excepted.

This, I believe, is why Obama opposes congressional action that would strengthen his bargaining position. Obama is fine with bargaining from weakness with Iran, and wants to earn credit with the mullahs for standing up on their behalf to Congress, including members of his own party.

A final note. The Post’s editors should be commended for the strong position they advance in today’s editorial. A few days age, I suggested that the Post was experiencing something resembling Stockholm syndrome in its reporting on Iran. If so, the syndrome has not spilled over to its editorial page.