In the spring of 2006, a veteran Democratic senator visiting Boston was asked at a small gathering what the Democratic Party’s strategy was to address the advancing specter of Iranian nuclear capability. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “With any luck Israel will do something about it and the rest of us will publicly blame Israel.”

The senator was not being snide. He was being candid: For many Democrats, the Iranian nuclear issue is suffused with, if not dominated by, wishful thinking.

For the Democratic left, economic sanctions on Iran have been regarded with ambivalence. In late 2007, as the Democratic presidential nomination fight was underway, U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) introduced bipartisan legislation permitting financial sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) supported the measure.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama derided her position as “Bush-Lite,” telling Democrats that Clinton’s support for sanctions “raises the risk of war with Iran.” John Edwards, whose presidential campaign was premised on trumping Obama’s appeal to the party’s left, likewise denounced Clinton. “Senator Clinton’s actions,” he proclaimed, “undermine the American people’s opposition to war with Iran.”

Indeed, the Obama administration has frequently sought to derail congressional efforts to bring Iran to the negotiating table by imposing economic sanctions on its regime. When the sanctions that the president had regarded so coolly began to yield results, and the Iranians were forced to seek a diplomatic resolution or risk further economic harm, the administration’s ill-concealed eagerness to announce a deal led it to sign onto an agreement so inadequate that the French foreign minister described it with disgust as a “sucker’s deal.”

The Joint Plan of Action purportedly setting forth an interim deal was announced with much fanfare in Geneva in November. But, it turned out, the deal was not a deal at all, but merely an agreement to reach an agreement and one that would afford Iran substantially greater benefits than the State Department had previously admitted. It has taken almost six weeks since then for Iran and the group of six world powers it has been negotiating with to settle on a plan that will lead to six months of further talks.

In the meantime, support has grown in the Senate for a bipartisan bill that would significantly ratchet up sanctions if Iran did not come to a final agreement that satisfactorily remedies the Iranian nuclear threat. This would permit the Obama administration the time it claims it needs to negotiate a diplomatic resolution, while providing a powerful incentive for Iran to sign on to one.

The White House immediately threatened to veto the sanctions bill. However, with confidence eroding on Capitol Hill that the Obama administration knows what it is doing or can be relied upon to do it when it comes to Iran, some 59 senators reportedly support the bill, bringing it only a few votes shy of being veto-proof.

The White House has responded by dusting off the “march to war” rhetoric that so appealed to left-leaning Democrats in 2008, accusing senators who have concluded that prospective sanctions are the best way of achieving a diplomatic solution of favoring war over diplomacy.

“If certain members of Congress want the United States to take military action, they should be up front with the American people and say so,” Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, said last week.

This is the equivalent of saying that if the Obama administration favors a policy of appeasement, it should be up front with the American public and say so.

An overwhelming majority of both houses of Congress has concluded, based on Iran’s steady race toward nuclear weapons, the problematic nature of the interim deal and the productive role that sanctions have played thus far, that enhancing Iran’s incentive to reach a diplomatic solution is not only wise, but necessary.

Accusing those who have reached that conclusion of preferring war over diplomacy is demagoguery, and a particularly ugly form of it at that.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Herald.

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