Biden Ignores That Bush, Not Obama, Secured Unanimous U.N. Measures Against Iran

By Patrick Goodenough | May 9, 2012 | 4:27 AM EDT

Vice President Joe Biden addresses the annual assembly of the Rabbinical Assembly – a body of rabbis representing some 1.5 million Conservative Jews worldwide – in Atlanta, Ga. on Tuesday, May 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bob Andres)

( – Vice President Joe Biden claimed Tuesday that when President Obama took office, “there was virtually no international pressure on Iran” and that the U.S. was diplomatically isolated. But the situation he described differs from the historical record.

Defending the administration’s approach towards Iran before a conservative Jewish audience, Biden painted a picture of Bush failure and Obama success.

“When we took office – let me remind you – there was virtually no international pressure on Iran,” Biden told the Rabbinical Assembly’s annual convention in Atlanta, Ga.

We were the problem,” he continued. “We were diplomatically isolated in the world, in the region, in Europe. The international pressure on Iran was stuck in neutral.”

But for all its perceived “diplomatic isolation” and unpopularity at the U.N., the Bush administration was twice able to accomplish what its successor has not – a unanimous (15-0) Security Council vote for sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear activities. Those resolutions were passed in Dec. 2006 and Mar. 2007.

Furthermore, on a third occasion (Mar. 2008) the Bush administration achieved a 14-0 vote for a sanctions resolution (Indonesia abstained). And a fourth resolution (Sept. 2008) – which did not impose new sanctions but reaffirmed the previous measures – also passed unanimously.

In contrast, the Obama administration has steered just one sanctions resolution through the Security Council (resolution 1929 in June 2010) and was unable to get all members onboard. In a 12-2 vote Turkey and Brazil opposed the measure, while Lebanon abstained.

Under the Bush administration, Biden said, “America’s leadership was in doubt. We were neither fully respected by our friends nor feared by our opponents. Today it is starkly, starkly different.”

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Republicans criticized Biden’s comments, taking aim in particular at the “we were the problem” remark.

“The problem is not America,” said Lanhee Chen, policy director for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “It is the ayatollahs who oppress their people, threaten their neighbors, and are pursuing nuclear weapons. President Obama’s naive approach to Iran has given the regime valuable time to get closer than ever before to a nuclear weapons capability.”

“Iran was the problem then and it is the problem now,” said Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks. “It’s foolishly misguided for the Vice President to blame anyone, or any country, other than Iran.”

Unanimity prized

In the world of international diplomacy, unanimity in U.N. resolutions is held up as the ideal in sending a “strong and unified” message in response to a crisis. So highly prized is the goal that Security Council members will often accept a watering-down of language rather than risk “no” votes or, in the case of permanent members, a veto.

At the behest of Russia and China, every Iran sanctions resolution has been weaker than the U.S. would have wanted. Still, the unanimous votes achieved during the Bush years did reflect a unified position on Iran’s nuclear activities by the world body’s most powerful organ.

And Bush administration diplomats succeeded in getting the resolutions passed unanimously in 2006, 2007 and 2008 while dealing with a Security Council whose membership was no friendlier to the U.S. than the one faced by U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice in 2010.

Her Bush-era predecessors managed to win over several skeptical members, including Qatar (2006 and 2007), Indonesia (2007), South Africa (2007 and 2008), Vietnam (2008) – and Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya (2008).

Taking credit for sanctions

Iran today is indeed confronted by tougher sanctions than ever before, but that is largely a result of strong prodding by Congress. Actions by allies like Canada, Australia and the European Union have also helped.

In June 2010 the Security Council passed resolution 1929 which, while the strongest U.N. measure yet, was watered down at Russia and China’s insistence and did not target Tehran’s oil and gas sector.

Two weeks later the U.S. House and Senate by large margins (408-8 and 99-0) passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), which penalized companies that sell gasoline or related products to Iran or support its refining efforts.

Last December, the House passed by 410-11 the Iran Threat Reduction Act which toughens measures contained in the CISADA, targeting Iran’s oil industry, the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), nuclear program and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The administration in 2011 was reluctant to support moves threatening to cut off foreign banks from doing business with the U.S. if they continued dealing with the CBI. Among other things, U.S. officials argued that targeting the Iranian institution would send oil prices soaring.

Nonetheless, 92 senators signed a letter urging the White House “to impose crippling sanctions on Iran’s financial system by cutting off the CBI.” In December the Senate voted 100-0 for an amendment to defense appropriation legislation allowing the president to sanction any foreign bank involved in a “significant financial transaction with the Central Bank of Iran.” The administration was given six months to apply the sanctions if it determined that they would disrupt global oil markets.

Obama signed the defense bill into law, with reservations, and in an executive order last February announced sanctions including restrictions on the CBI.

In March, he issued a declaration saying there were enough non-Iranian oil supplies to allow oil-related sanctions to be imposed against the CBI.

In his 2012 State of the Union, Obama took credit for the pressure faced by Tehran: “Through the power of our diplomacy, a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program now stands as one,” he said. “The regime is more isolated than ever before; its leaders are faced with crippling sanctions, and as long as they shirk their responsibilities, this pressure will not relent.”

“Left unsaid in his reference to ‘crippling sanctions’ is the inconvenient truth that his administration repeatedly has opposed and sought to soften congressional legislation to ratchet up sanctions against Iran,” Heritage Foundation scholar James Phillips commented at the time.

“Despite the Obama administration’s vows to cripple Iran with economic sanctions, it is leaders in Congress and Europe who have seized the lead in the West’s long-running campaign to punish Tehran for its suspected nuclear weapons program,” the Los Angeles Times reported in February.

“In recent months, the toughest moves to deter Iran from pursuing its presumed nuclear ambitions have come from a bipartisan group in Congress and European allies, especially Britain and France,” it said. “The White House at first resisted these steps before embracing them as inevitable.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow