It also had quite an effect back in Washington. Whereas Iran had long been a source of bipartisan agreement, the negotiations instantly made relations with the country into a lightning-rod issue between Republicans and Democrats. President Obama prevailed in a major campaign to prevent Congress from rejecting the agreement, and for better or worse, the Iran nuclear deal will occupy a central component of his legacy.
A new book by the Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon, “The Iran Wars,” offers a gripping account of the developments that paved the way to the deal. The book surveys the multifarious skirmishes between Iranian ambitions and American power projection over the decade-long nuclear crisis — on battlefields and in the banking system, through covert maneuvers and public outreach, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and in the campaign against ISIS. Solomon’s engaging narrative of an expansive, innovative American response to the shape-shifting Iranian threat makes a valuable contribution to a debate that has too often presented Iran one-dimensionally.
Solomon covers a lot of ground quickly, dispensing with the fraught saga of the American relationship with Iran’s monarchy, as well as the dramatic 1979 revolution itself, in less than a page apiece. Despite occasionally dropping into Tehran, “The Iran Wars” doesn’t expend much energy contemplating what drives Iranian decision-making on the nuclear issue or its approach to the world. And while the book offers interesting insights into the bilateral confrontation, describing Washington’s deployment of financial sanctions and cybersabotage as “a new era in the annals of U.S. national security and diplomacy,” Solomon does not then explore the implications of these developments for future policy.
That is unfortunate, because as the book underscores, the American-led campaign of coercive economic diplomacy may be the most consequential development of “the Iran wars.” Since 1979, Washington has always relied on sanctions to address the Iranian challenge, but international reluctance to cooperate diluted their impact. All that changed over the past 15 years; using counterterrorism authorities created after the 9/11 attacks, the Treasury Department devised a juggernaut of financial measures that gradually severed Tehran’s access to the international banking system.
What Solomon does well is chronicle exactly how this worked — how Washington’s efforts to squeeze Tehran’s bottom line, including lawsuits, advocacy with international financial institutions and “a global game of whack-a-mole,” eventually wore Iran down. The book’s emphasis on the fierce jousting between Congress and the Obama White House over the pace and scope of sanctions deftly foreshadows the intensification of partisan politics during the final nuclear negotiations. But Solomon’s focus on the domestic politics of sanctions largely overlooks the factors that facilitated their efficacy: the painstaking diplomacy required to generate multilateral consensus for economic penalties against Iran and the advent of unconventional energy supplies and slowing global growth that dampened the need for Iran’s oil exports. Sanctions are now widely seen as a silver bullet when it comes to penalizing a country for its behavior, but replicating these conditions and calibrating the penalties themselves may prove more difficult than initially understood.
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