Senator Chuck Schumer has declared himself. He is sticking to his endorsement of the bill that insists that Congress approve of the Iran nuclear deal. “I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement and I support the Corker [Bob Corker Rep.-Tenn and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] bill which would allow that to occur.” Up until yesterday he had been equivocal and only seemed to endorse Congressional involvement and not outright approval.
I am all for enhanced democratic review, but what changed? Why now even before he is briefed in detail by the White House? Why before the final agreement is reached on 30 June? Why over the Iranian deal? Why is this deal different from almost all other foreign agreements? And why would a democratic senator push such a bill, and do so strongly, given the Republican adamant stance in opposing virtually anything Obama initiates?
Schumer is expected to become the Democratic leader in the Senate in 2017 now that Robert Menendez has been eclipsed because of the investigation of his affairs and allegations of corruption. Schumer’s support indicates that twelve additional Democratic senators are likely to follow. That would mean that the Senate is on the cusp of achieving a veto-proof majority. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the new ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, might add his support if he can obtain concessions ensuring that the bill could not derail the agreement – an unlikely prospect.
The proposed bill freezes sanctions relief for 60 days while Congress reviews the agreement, a seemingly relatively innocuous and eminently democratic requirement. But the bill as written also allows Congress to veto the agreement, an unprecedented development with respect to these types of foreign agreements. Democrats have until today to file proposed amendments to soften the legislation. Corker and his supporters argue that they are playing the role of a tag team to allow and permit Obama to remain tough in the negotiations between now and 30 June. However, that is misleading since there are many alternative ways of accomplishing the same goal that would not also possibly undermine the negotiations.
Everyone is aware – the Americans from all camps, the Iranians, the remainder of the P5+1, virtually all experts on the negotiations – that the sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and that the removal of the sanctions is Iran’s foremost foreign policy objective. Netanyahu and the Republicans believe that the Obama administration has not squeezed the Iranians sufficiently and that more can be gained in terms of foreign policy goals. The negotiators, on the other hand – not just the Americans but the Europeans as well – believe that they have squeezed Iranians as much as they could.
Like the Americans, the Iranians are also divided into two camps. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are the doves. They are agreeable to severe limits on Iran’s nuclear program under two major provisos – sanctions are definitely lifted and Iran retains the right of any nation to use its nuclear program for peaceful purposes. The American negotiators are willing to lift the sanctions if reasonable guarantees via transparency, inspections and deconstruction of that portion of Iran’s nuclear program are sufficient to ensure that Iran cannot reconstruct its nuclear weapons program quickly.
The doves in each country face off with hawks. Most American hawks have a vested interest in retaining sanctions to use, not so much to confine Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful purposes, but to use the sanction pressures to extract other non-nuclear concessions from Iran on its missile program, on its support for Hamas and Hezbollah as well as the rebels in Yemen, on its hegemonic ambitions in the Gulf and, most importantly to them, to minimize Iran as a threat to Israel.
Some American hawks, like John Bolton, go further. They do not believe sanctions will modify Iranian policy in any significant ways and believe the only real option is war against Iran. “The only credible option for significantly delaying the Iranian nuclear program would be a bombing campaign,” wrote Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations. Billy Kristol agreed. “It’s long since been time for the United States to speak to this regime in the language it understands—force.” It is not clear whether other hawks believe this as well but focus on the attacking the deal with Iran as both flawed and inadequate because they do not believe that a policy objective of war with Iran is salable to the American public.
Rouhani’s and Zarif’s hard line opponents also have a vested interest in retaining sanctions. They benefit economically through their controls on smuggling and their ability to earn inflated profits on scarce goods through the businesses they inherited and developed. They also benefit politically in reinforcing the image of America as a bogeyman for the Iranian people. Like the extreme hawks in the U.S., no deal that is possible would be acceptable to them but they will go along with any deal approved by the Supreme Leader.
Are there moderate Iranian hawks who simply believe Iran could get a better deal? Undoubtedly, but I believe the Iranians are desperate enough that virtually any deal that does not cross their red lines would be acceptable. They have clearly enunciated those red lines – lifting all the nuclear sanctions and conceding that Iran has the right to retain and use its nuclear infrastructure for peaceful purposes.
This red line enjoys widespread support. Even Mir-Hossein Mousavi, leader of the Green Movement, insisted that, “we will not abandon the great achievements of Iranian scientists. I too will not suspend uranium enrichment.” Even a hawk such as the Commander of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, Mohammad Ali Jafari, has insisted, an immediate lifting of sanctions is a red line for Iran. Thus, although the Iranian hawks oppose the deal, but have acceded to it because it is now supported by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, they hope Congress will push America into a position of refusing to lift all sanctions related to nuclear weapons when and if Iran carries out its part of the bargain. Thus do American hawks strengthen Iranian hawks.
On the other hand, the doves on each side have also become interdependent. It seems clear from both statements from the White House and from the current Iranian political leadership that both sides hope that the nuclear deal will have wider ramifications, including with respect to Iran-U.S. relations, even though those prospects are not part of the agreement. Rouhani stated that, “Some think that we must either fight the world or surrender to world powers. We say it is neither of those, there is a third way. We can have cooperation with the world…With those countries with which we have a cold relationship, we would like a better relationship. And if we have tension or hostility with any countries, we want an end to tension and hostility with those countries.” Rouhani will not be the first leader of a repressive country to initiate domestic pressures for reform by engagement with the rest of the world.
Netanyahu has correctly insisted that, “we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing.” But the agreement is not dependent on such a change. Nor is it conditional upon the regime changing as a result of the agreement. That is a hoped-for plus. As Netanyahu has also said, if the regime changed, there would be no need for an agreement. One of those hoped for consequences is that ]ran will give up on its objective of exterminating Israel. But to make that a necessary condition of the deal is both unfeasible and will more likely ensure that intractable hostility will remain. “Israel will not accept an agreement which allows a country that vows to annihilate us to develop nuclear weapons, period.”
Netanyahu’s assertion is totally understandable. But to make the goal regime change or even, now that the rest of the world has accepted it, that the sanctions regime ensure that Iran’s capability of eventually making nuclear weapons is totally destroyed, is to desire perfection and, unfortunately, as has been said many times, perfection is the enemy of the possible. Making a deal conditional upon Iran recognizing Israel’s right to exist is a total non-starter. As Obama said, “The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognising Israel is really akin to saying that we won’t sign a deal.”
If the American hawks undermine the deal, especially now that the rest of the world has endorsed it, if Iran keeps to the deal without American participation, the international nuclear sanctions regime will collapse on their own. America would find itself to be internationally isolated on the issue with dramatic negative effects on the rest of its foreign policy objectives. Once the deal has been agreed to and once the details are filled in by 30 June to the satisfaction of both sides, America will be not only the only loser, but a huge loser if the hawks win the day.
Further, Iran would be the real winner because it could, and might be forced to by internal pressures, to resist many of the concessions it has already made. Iran would be unwilling to craft any deal on such unfavourable terms to itself as has been the case under American leadership. The European Council on Foreign Relations warned that American hawks, “could endanger the international consensus backing sanctions against Iran” with the prospective result that Europe would unilaterally ease easing its oil embargo against Iran.
China and Russia would seize “the opportunity to further advance their own interests at the expense of the U.S.” Igor Korotchenko, head of Moscow’s Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade suggested that Russia sell S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. Enhanced sanctions against Iran without the cooperation of the rest of the world would make the whole sanctions regime irrelevant. America would have shot itself in the foot. On the other hand, if the agreement holds, the revival of Iran’s energy sector will undermine Russia’s ability to blackmail Europe because of its role as a major supplier of oil and gas. Further, American companies can be in the front row with other competitors in the lucrative prospective business of rehabilitating Iran’s oil sector.
Given all of these factors, why have some influential congressman seemingly joined the efforts to undermine the deal? My conviction is that it has nothing to do with foreign policy and everything to do with both domestic policy and Congressional politics. I will have to expand on this at another time.