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foreign policy

The Twisted Logic of the Iran Debate

Obama has won but so has Iran

To follow the inverted logic of the furious debate over the Iran nuclear deal has been an adventure in Wonderland where Alice learns that down is up and up is down. Opponents argued that we
should hold out for a better deal. After holding fast against six nations for 18 months, surely Iran will be only too obliging to return to the table. Or, why don't we just toughen the sanctions? Never mind that our partner nations would abandon both us and the sanctions in disgust if the U.S. were to back out of the deal. But the agreement “paves Iran’s path to a bomb” in 10 to 15 years warns Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Somehow that's the danger, not that Iran would set its centrifuges spinning again now if there is no deal.

Dick Cheney and daughter Liz wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal to report that a deal that is designed to block all pathways to a nuclear weapon "will actually accelerate" nuclear proliferation because of "America’s unwillingness to stop the Iranian nuclear program". How's that again? Because preventing Iran from continuing its nuclear development will see "nations across the Middle East work to acquire their own weapons". Pretzel logic.

The topsy-turvy illogic that we should just demand a better deal has been voiced by many in Congress, many of them probably not even aware during the past 18 months, punctuated by disputes and walkouts, that the grudging negotiations were taking place. "Congress should reject a bad deal", say ads from AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "We need a better deal". Up pops Joe Lieberman, without portfolio but somehow given a podium in the media to say that "because of its depleted economy" Iran will come running back to the table because they "need an agreement more than we do". Lieberman then took the reins of United Against a Nuclear Iran, a supposedly bipartisan group belied by its advertising.

cover up

For its part, the Obama administration didn't play it straight. Much like Obamacare, false promises were uncovered one by one — that there is no "anywhere, anytime" guarantee; that a request must be filed to inspect a newly suspected site, setting in motion a 24-day process giving Iran ample time to sweep evidence under the rug; that Iran will ludicrously inspect itself at the Parchin military base.

(The Parchin "bombshell" — The Wall Street Journal — that is "utterly humiliating" — The Washington Post — was a phony issue, though. For a facility widely suspected of involvement in nuclear weapon development, self-inspection is of course a joke, but it isn't news. "In his television appearance the Ayatollah ruled out military bases", we reported April 13th. “It must absolutely not be allowed for [the IAEA] to infiltrate into the country’s defense and security domain under the pretext of inspections,” he said.)

These surprises gave the opposing camp a steady resupply of ammunition and it got nasty. Netanyahu views the U.S. Congress as his own lobby and has engaged in persistent meddling with U.S. policy. He set about contacting American Jews directly and telling them the deal would give Iran “hundreds of bombs tomorrow” and turn any terrorist group backed by Iran into a “terrorist superpower". Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, has gone through the back door to meet with some 60 senators and representatives to lobby against the accord. Netanyahu told the Jewish community he rejects the deal “because I want to prevent war”. Obama told everyone that all that would be left as the alternative to the deal is war.

This succeeded in splitting the Jewish community into opposing factions that one called "fratricide". Several Democrats in districts with large Jewish populations broke with Obama and sided with Netanyahu, most prominently New York Senator Charles Schumer. Brooklyn's representative Jerry Nadler, also Jewish, stayed with Obama and received death threats.

Countering the Israeli campaign, "Cabinet members and other senior administration officials talked directly with more than 200 House members and senators", reported The New York Times. "The president spoke personally to about 100 lawmakers…called 30 lawmakers during his August vacation". What may have worked better still was the visit here by diplomats from all five partner nations in the deliberations — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — to deliver a message to on-the-fence Democrats that this is the best deal they can expect and there won't be another.

too great expectations

Iran has been living under increasingly tough sanctions for the past decade. In the talks they showed an unyielding resolve to hold out unless one after another concession was granted. The concern on our side of the table was that they would quit the talks, meaning the end of the interim accord that halted their nuclear activities while negotiations took place, and resume nuclear weapon development with a "breakout time" — the time needed to produce enough enriched uranium to make one bomb — estimated at a mere two to three months. The six nations opposite Iran at the bargaining table reasoned that a regime of restrictions and inspections — some for 10 and some for 15 years and beyond — is better than the status quo ante that existed before the interim accord.

only buying time

The abiding fear is that the agreement, by allowing Iran to keep a sharply reduced number of centrifuges spinning and to continue research, will enable Iran to become a threshold nuclear state a "screwdriver's turn away" from producing a bomb when the 10-15 years are up. The one-year breakout time initially brought about by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) restrictions, will by then have withered away to zero. Those complaints somehow expected that the U.S. and partners could have and should have exacted from the Iranians a prohibition that would extend into perpetuity, conditions to which no sovereign country would have acceded. Their view is that end of restrictions somehow legitimizes Iran as a nuclear proliferating state.

But there are no requirements for the western nations to allow Iran to do as it pleases when restrictions lapse. All options are then available to us if Iran reverts to its nuclear ambitions.

Far more troubling is the return to Iran of its own funds frozen by the West, variously spoken of as $100 billion to $150 billion. It sets up a scenario in which we are left with nothing but have to trust Iran — exactly what the Obama administration has promised not to extend. Iran's economic health will be restored, the sanctions will have been lifted, the arms and ballistic missile embargoes ended, so what is left to hold Iran to the deal? The "snap-back" sanctions? Will Europe give up the profitable trade with Iran that will have grown up by then? Will Russia and China and the other nations that cooperated with the U.S. on sanctions be willing to injure their economies once again by sanction reinstatement? That leaves nothing but trust that Iran will see the deal through, and that is a pipe dream.

Iran will mock our naïveté and return to its plan to become the hegemon of the Middle East enforced by its nuclear blackmail weapon. We will then be one or two presidents further along, possibly much more concerned with a militaristic China, so who can say whether we will then be willing to attack Iran? Restored to health, Iran will have built up its defenses and weaponry such that it could become much more difficult to cripple the nuclear program or the country than now.

the bigger picture

Mostly lost in the fierce debate were the consequences if the United States — the country that pressed the hardest and led the talks — were to walk away from our own deal. This would have told the world that the U.S. cannot lead, has become too dysfunctional to get a job done. There is the danger that allied and friendly countries, seeing the handwriting of realpolitik on the wall, might defensively seek to improve relations with China. There's apprehension that this in turn would play into China's hand to weaken or replace the dollar as the world's reserve currency, a huge diminishment for the U.S.

But not much heed is paid to that. The mindset is far more parochial. It is stunning that, among the hundreds in Congress, there is so far no Republican who will decide for him- or herself to vote for the accord. That all march in lockstep says their vote will be entirely political with no regard for whether their act may not be in the interest of the nation. Otherwise, surely someone would step forward to break ranks.

a war strategy?

Worse, we are in a new moment of our democracy in which the losing side of a law's passage sets about to destroy the law in other ways. Don't like Obamacare? Then plot to block its funding, for example. As Obama looked close to getting enough votes to prevent Congress surmounting his veto, Sen. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, began leading a move to vote for a new set of sanctions against Iran for supporting terrorist groups in the Middle East. There is little doubt that Iran would view removing one set of sanctions and imposing another with a different label as one and the same, and grounds for breaking the deal — fulfilling the Republican objective. In fact, Iran has already made that clear in two provisions of the JCPOA (paragraphs 26 and 37) in nearly identical words, "that if sanctions are reinstated in whole or in part, Iran will treat that as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.”

In March, fellow Tennessee Republican Senator Tom Cotton lined up 47 senators to sign a letter to the Ayatollah and Iranian leadership warning them that the United States cannot be trusted. Corker has decided to prove him right. These moves to deliberately break the deal beg the question of whether what this faction really has in mind is to trigger war now as the better option.

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