Responses to the Iran Deal
Rabbi Dow Marmur’s last blog ended by quoting my blog and writing that my analysis helped enhance his enjoyment of Passover. I was both flattered and delighted, of course. But the blog itself was far more interesting and I noticed a pattern between it and many of the other post-deal commentators who supported the nuclear framework agreement with Iran. Dow wrote that he came to his support by examining the alternatives. He focused on war against Iran as the alternative. Other commentators concentrated on containment and increased sanctions as the real alternative that Netanyahu really favours. There is, of course, a third alternative, continuing the pressure of the existing sanctions at the current level, perhaps Netanyahu’s fallback position.
However, it is not only the comparison of the deal with other possible alternatives that caught my interest, but the analysis of the pros and cons relative to the alternatives. The critics of the deal did not proceed in that way. Instead, they began with the undisputed conclusions of most observers of Iran that the government there sponsors terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, persecutes minorities, particularly the Baha’is, denies rights, has ambitions to become a dominant regional power and has, as an ultimate objective, the extermination of Israel. The factual premises of both groups are the same. What divides the doves and the hawks is whether the nuclear deal helps or hinders the West in its conflicts with Iran.
Thus, the leader of the US House of Representatives, Republican Speaker John Boehner, in a written statement, focused on his fears, after visiting the Middle East, about Iran’s efforts to spread terrorism. Easing economic sanctions will permit Iran “to further destabilize the region.” But there was a note of hope. For he did not blast the agreement as Netanyahu did, but insisted that Congress be able “to review details of any pact before sanctions are lifted.” Aside from the House of Representatives not having any constitutional rights to approve or vote down agreements with other states, his statement could suggest that the Republicans have shifted their attack mode from the substance of the agreement to procedural processes. I would contend, however, that the essential question is not whether the deal enhances or interferes with a larger political and security agenda, but whether it successfully enhances the objective of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. If it may also advance a larger political agenda, that would be a bonus.
For the hawks, the issue is not really how good or bad the deal is, though they spend enormous efforts seeking out flaws, but that any imaginable deal, even one that ended up totally destroying every single bit of Iran’s nuclear capability, would not be good enough for most of those critics. Why? Because the confrontation on the nuclear issue unites West and East in opposition to Iran. Removing that incentive, the anti-Iran coalition weakens considerably, hence undermining the opposition to Iran’s foreign policy ambitions and its support of terrorism, quite aside from Iran’s ambitions against Israel. An effective nuclear deal allows Iran increased economic capacities to support terrorists and develop its non-nuclear technological military capabilities.
However, there are also those who criticize the deal whose position I cannot understand at all. They include Benjamin Netanyahu. Although he did not repeat his silly notion that Iran had to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a condition for an agreement on the use of nuclear energy, the latest iteration of his position is that the agreement with Iran will spark a nuclear arms race among Sunni countries in the Middle East. His message then struck a familiar note common to many post-deal critics. His position is the precise opposite of my own. Instead of characterizing Iran as capitulating on a number of items, he dubbed it “a dream deal for Iran and a nightmare deal for the world.” Why? Because it “leaves the preeminent terrorist state of our time with a vast nuclear infrastructure.”
The contention that it will spark a Middle East arms race may have been set off by the reported Saudi and other Gulf Sunni Arab states that the agreement is dangerous because it effectively gives Iran the resources and carte blanche to pursue its expansionist agenda against Sunni Arab states in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and, most recently, in Yemen. Further, Hani ala-Jamal, as one example, in al-Wafd, a newspaper published by the Wafd party in Giza, Egypt, argues that, “The deal means that the international community has accepted Iran as a nuclear power.”
It would be helpful to the debate if the conflict over the political and strategic significance of the deal was not littered with so much shrapnel. For example, Netanyahu has insisted that “not one centrifuge is destroyed” in the framework agreement. But of 19,000 centrifuges in Iran’s possession, 13,000 are decommissioned. The ones retained are all the old slower models. The de-commissioning and mothballing is subject to stringent inspection and transparency requirements. Effectively, this means significant delays before Iran could make them operational with plenty of time for the UN and Western countries to respond, especially since the removal of the sanctions has a snap-back provision. But when one reads critics like Netanyahu, all one gets is rhetoric, not considered argument, and rhetoric that distorts to the point of obfuscation and incredulity.
What is interesting is that some of the stalwarts of opposition to the agreement in the American Congress have been much more cautious in responding to the framework agreement. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commented that, “I don’t know how someone can ascertain whether this is something good or bad,” until he had more details about the framework agreement, an implicit criticism of Netanyahu. This is the same Corker who just two weeks previously had been insisting that Congress, especially the Senate, have not only a say in the deal, but would have to approve the agreement in accordance with the proposed Bipartisan Iran Nuclear Review Act of 2015 if it is passed on 14 April. That bill had been proceeding through the Senate, but there are even more doubts now that it would be approved given both Democratic hawks who would question opposing such a strong agreement as well as some wavering Republicans. Further, some Republican supporters of strong presidential power would be reluctant to support such a measure lest a bad precedent be set. Even if approved, it would certainly be vetoed by Obama.
Obama has plenty of precedent to insist that this agreement is not a treaty requiring two-thirds assent in the Senate, but an executive agreement made between and among heads of government and internationally binding on the states which enter into the agreement. Unless Corker could muster a two-thirds veto-proof majority for his own bill requiring Obama to obtain Congressional approval, which seems far less likely that just a few weeks ago given the toughness of the agreement, Obama seems to have a clear path to conclude his greatest foreign policy achievement. Obama could just issue executive orders through the Treasury Department to lift the sanctions. As John Bolton, the former Bush State Department official, U.N. ambassador, champion of the Iraq war and stalwart opponent of an agreement with Iran, has said in all honesty, 90% of post WWII foreign agreements have been made without Congressional input let alone approval.
Corker is simply not able to muster 13 Democratic Senators and 46 House Democrats to place such binding restrictions on a presidential initiative simply on the basis that Iran has been able to retain some operational centrifuges and can enrich some uranium to a limited degree. Some hawks, including independents like Sen Angus King of Maine, might still support Corker’s bill, but even King is opposed to making Iran a partisan issue. After all, this was the premise of the Joint Plan of Action that set off the negotiations and Congress did not exert any effort to reign in that effort. Ben Cardin (D-MD), another hawk, also supports a strong president. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), another strong anti-Iran hawk, remains a conundrum. He has strong Jewish backing, but given the terms of the agreement, would he vote to reduce presidential authority significantly because of this issue? In any case, there are enough members of Congress who previously supported Corker’s bill to back off and ensure that a two-thirds majority could not be mustered to flout the president.
There is another aspect to the considerations. Any effort to scuttle the agreement would set off a severe schism between the U.S. and its allies that are part of the P5+1. They would feel betrayed and a deep rift would emerge between the U.S. and Europe, much deeper than the one between the U.S. president and Netanyahu. Perhaps the hawks would be better off to see if the framework agreement could be translated into an actual detailed agreement. That is another hurdle, and not a small one. But given the prospect of Congress failing to impede the president on a deal that on the non-proliferation issue seems very strong even if ineffective when it comes to Iran’s non-nuclear political, military and strategic goals, I would claim that if the framework can actually be translated into a full agreement, a prospect that seems very likely at this moment, the President can expect relatively smooth sailing in spite of the head winds coming from his Congressional enemies.
For the reality of the deal is that it contains provisions that detached observers previously thought might be impossible to achieve – exceeding the ambition of 6,000 operational centrifuges, eliminating any advanced design centrifuges, reconfiguring the heavy-water reactor Arak and ensuring that any plutonium produced is stored offshore, reducing the amount of enriched uranium by 97% to only 300 kg. for fifteen years, keeping that uranium at a level of 3.67 instead of 5% enrichment, and redesigning Fordow so that it cannot even enrich uranium. However, the key victory is a stringent inspection and transparency regime. It is no surprise then that the Committee of Independent Scientists who have never taken a partisan stand on the Iran issue has cautiously approved the framework agreement.
The Obama administration did not intend to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and such an initiative independently by Israel was strongly opposed by its own intelligence and security apparatus. Now that America’s European allies have signed onto the framework agreement the prospect of retaining the sanctions at the present level never mind increasing them seems unlikely. The real alternative if America does not sign the final agreement is that a much weaker sanctions regime would be the result. To take up the issue raised at the beginning of this blog, it is no wonder that the hawks do not consider alternatives but simply blare out their opposition to the deal. The hawks have been deeply wounded by the actual results.
Why did Netanyahu not seek further side agreements and letters with its European and American allies to doubly ensure that the provisions of the agreement could not become ineffective and to ensure Israel’s security? As Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Yadlin, former head of the Israeli Military Intelligence, said, “If we had a prime minister who knows how to talk to the Americans and enjoyed the president’s trust, this would have been the time to jump on the bandwagon and demand clarification of all the points that require clarification. There are still things that can be achieved in this agreement. At the same time, this is the time to reach understandings with the Americans, and perhaps even to reach a parallel Israeli-US agreement, providing Israel with clarifications, assurances and perhaps even defense compensation for the risks it is taking. We did things like that after the peace agreement with Egypt and at different points in time, too.”
One explanation is that Netanyahu was playing the bad cop, but this seems highly unlikely given the actual severe negative consequences on U.S.-Israeli relations. The only realistic judgment, and one made increasingly by the mavins in Israel’s intelligence and military apparatus, is that Netanyahu in his strident and absolute opposition to the framework agreement just dug his own grave.
The reality is that the deal does not pave the way for Iran to become a nuclear military power but rather turns a superhighway that Iran had constructed and was already in place into a dirt path for all terrain vehicles. But that is not the real issue. Opponents of the deal wanted to use sanctions to weaken Iran militarily and economically so the country could not pursue its foreign policy agenda. They were not just after implementation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Relief from the sanctions will enable Iran to pursue its foreign policy objectives with more resources and more concentrated effort. More to the point, Israel – and Saudi Arabia – have great fears that the agreement will pave the way, not for a nuclear Iran, but for further collaboration in the future between Iran and the U.S.
There is some hope among doves that increasing engagement with Iran will lead to further moderation in Iran’s foreign and domestic policy. I do not feel as sanguine on that score, but still feel a non-nuclear Iran is both better for the world and for Israel. The framework deal goes a very long way to achieving that goal, though there are never any absolute guarantees. The agreement has been part of a long sustained process begun when the U.S. discovered the underground facility at Fordow. The U.S. introduced and gradually enhanced sanctions in concert with other powers while, at the same time, the U.S. and Israel used covert espionage and cyber warfare, in particular, the Stuxnet virus, to damage the Iranian nuclear program. Other even more destructive techniques have been held in abeyance. At the same time, Obama repeatedly offered diplomacy and the other unclenched hand as an alternative.
In contrast to the George W. Bush rash militarism without thinking through the methods let alone the possible unanticipated unintended consequences of war, Obama has taken a modest and situational approach that is both cautious and incremental. Sometimes it has been too cautious. At other times, too aggressive, as in Libya. However, relatively the policy has avoided America becoming involved in wars it cannot win. Thus, the success of the Iran framework agreement has not been a one-off success but part of a broader approach of which this has been the preeminent achievement.