Obama wins internal political battle over presidency-defining Iran deal

With public support from Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, who says she favours the Iran nuclear accord, the agreement will not be blocked by the US Congress. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at what this means.

The other day, the writer participated in a seminar organised by the Africa Middle East Centre in Pretoria to discuss the accord between the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US, plus Germany) and Iran over Iran’s nuclear plans, together with Iranian professor Zeinab Ghasemi Tari, Afro-Middle East Centre researcher Ebrahim Deen and Al Jazeera Centre for Studies researcher/analyst Malak Chabkoun.

In preparing for this discussion, the writer recalled some observations about Iran from a long-time colleague, friend and mentor over 30 years ago. That man had served as an American diplomat for some years in pre-1979 Iran. During his assignment there, he had fallen in love with the country, its culture, long history and society (as well as the very accomplished woman he eventually married there). He said that from his time spent in Iran he had come to the conclusion that it was a nation struggling to find its rightful, natural place as a modern 20th century nation that would be acknowledged globally for what it should be. Back then, he noted that in future, Iran’s struggle would be to gain (or, from its perspective, regain) its national pride and global respect – built upon its thousands of years of international pre-eminence as a lion among nations. In thinking about that advice now, he seems to have been right on the money to have offered these observations, even before the departure of the Shah and the rise of Iran’s theocratic, revolutionary state.

In fact, the history of US-Iranian relations has usually been one of difficulties and challenges – and so much more rarely one of equanimity and ease. This was true from the time when Mohammad Mosadegh was prime minister, on through the period of Shah Pahlavi’s rule, and then even more clearly in the period of the 1979 revolution, the imposition of a theocratic state, and the forcible taking of US Embassy personnel as hostages. That latter event was an agony for the US that only ended on 20 January 1981, with the near destruction of the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Thereafter, the relationship, at least on any kind of official level, largely became a non-relationship with a vacuum at its core.

More recently, however, there has been movement in that vacant space. Several things seem to have come together to bring the Americans, as part of the P5+1 group, and Iran into a better kind of relationship – a relationship that has been sufficient to encourage, an ultimately, achieve a ground-breaking deal over the Iranian nuclear programme.

Key factors in bringing this about seem to have included:

  • The real need for Iran to gain access to its frozen foreign assets;
  • The broad demands, bubbling up within that society, for more access to foreign goods, services, products, ideas, and access to the world more generally;
  • The desire on the part of the Iranian government to be able to market its petroleum more easily on international markets in order to generate much-needed revenue;
  • The growing need to confront the Islamic State in northern Iraq and eastern Syria – in which there is a shared interest; and
  • An apparent recognition by both sides that the arrival of a new nuclear power in the region would increase the overall instability of an already seriously unstable area.

As far as this new agreement is concerned, it should be remembered that it is neither a bilateral agreement nor a formal international treaty. Rather, it is an agreement negotiated by seven different nations over the course of several years to achieve limited agreement on a specific change in international behaviours. As for the US, the resulting accord does not need to voted upon by the Senate as it would be if it were a standard treaty, where it would need to be to be voted upon under the Senate’s standard constitutional duty to “advise and consent” to negotiated treaties. But more on that in a moment.

In very broad strokes, the key elements of the accord are a series of reciprocal arrangements on the rollback of western economic sanctions and frozen assets, in return for halting the production of nuclear weapons-grade fissile materials. The accord includes a virtually unparalleled regimen of international inspections to be carried out by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of all publicly declared facilities, as well as heretofore secret ones – although there have been some compromises on the way inspections would be announced.

As a result of the agreement’s signing, the action has moved from conference rooms in various swanky Swiss hotels to the US domestic political sphere. Key questions there include:

  • The ability of the Obama administration to make the sale (to Congress and the public) that the agreement increases US (and allies’) security rather than decreases it;
  • The ability of the Republicans to make the contrasting sale within Congress that they must block the agreement’s approval as part of their posturing and positioning for the 2016 election; and
  • The way the Israeli government has chosen to insert itself into this US domestic political debate in its vigorous disagreement with the accord from a sense the accord would threaten Israel’s ‘existential interest’.

Congressional action on the agreement will presumably come before both houses of Congress in about two weeks. While the Obama administration will almost certainly fail to gain a straightforward vote of approval, the way the discussion and action on the agreement are being presented within Congress means it will be in the format of a vote on a measure to disapprove of it. As a result, the Obama administration has been playing a kind of ‘small ball’, one senator and representative at a time for some very big stakes.

Specifically, the objective has been to line up at least 34 members (one more than would leave its opponents with the two-thirds majority that would be needed to overturn a presidential veto of a measure disapproving of the accord). Crucially, on Wednesday 2 September, they received a public signal from Maryland Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski that she would support the accord. With that, the Obama administration has now apparently put a fatal roadblock in front of opposition to the accord. This crucial announcement will undoubtedly be the subject of some furious criticism of supporters of the accord in angry newspaper columns by Republican opponents, on Sunday news talk shows by the same people, and in statements from the Netanyahu government. Still, the minimally needed level of support for the accord has now been achieved – and the Obama administration has lurched across the goal line for another seemingly unlikely foreign policy victory.

Since agreement was reached between Iran and the P5+1, the essentials of the Obama administration’s argument (along with elders from the old internationalist wing of the Republican Party) have been:

  • No agreement is foolproof; but the inspections regimen is sufficiently strong that it can detect new build-ups of U235 before critical amounts have been separated from U238 by the Iranians;
  • The agreement creates a window of opportunity of well over a decade to encourage a broader social/political/economic shift in Iran that will change the nature of its government’s ambitions and strategic concepts;
  • Under pre-accord circumstances, Iran would actually have been closer to reaching that critical threshold of building a stockpile of fissile materials than it will be as a result of the agreement; and
  • Therefore, America’s allies in the region (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Israel, among others) are, on balance, safer and more secure with it in place than they would have been without it.

In contrast to those arguments, opponents largely have been making the case that:

  • The Obama administration was “congenitally” unable to negotiate hard enough to gain strategic advantage;
  • As a consequence, it gave away too much in exchange for only possible chances to check Iranian nuclear advances;
  • It sacrificed the needs of its regional allies for their security on the altar of some false hopes of Iranian compliance;
  • The IAEA’s inspection regimen will, as a consequence of this flawed agreement, be both incomplete and ineffectual;
  • The Obama administration has put too much weight on the possibilities of reform in Iran where its government continues to be a sponsor of international state and trans-national terrorism; and
  • The agreement fits too easily into an overall Obama global security strategy of retreat and constrainment. Instead, a tougher agreement could have, and should have, been achieved, if only there had been tougher, more experienced people at the helm in the first place.

Moreover, Republican leaders’ opposition to the accord also seems to have been based on a hope to pin blame over a flawed agreement squarely on the Obama administration, rather than on positions taken by six major nations acting together. The inference is that the blame could also be transferred onto the likely Democratic nominee – Hillary Clinton – as also being somehow complicit in a deal that tinkers with US interests and puts the security concerns of US allies at risk, all for a victory in the run-up to the election. There should be little doubt about the connection between opposition to the accord and the 2016 election cycle.

Given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s full court press against the accord, and his close embrace of hardliners in the Republican Party caucus in the US Congress, and the fact that the Obama administration has now avoided a veto-proof passage of a nay vote on the agreement, it may well be read that the Israeli government’s bet that it could help defeat the accord was ill-founded. (Of course, historically, foreign governments have often tried to influence US policy, of course. The difference this time around, however, is that engagement has been particularly partisan – hitching itself closely to the Republican Party and possibly compromising a heretofore easy, bipartisan support for Israel in future.)

Moreover, the Netanyahu government may well have too energetically enlisted support from “establishment” Jewish organisations such as the American Israel Public Affair Committee in order to engage in lobbying against the accord. This campaign may similarly have been ill considered. Several public attitude surveys have explored attitudes towards the accord and found that among American Jews, while active supporters of these older establishment bodies are less well disposed toward the agreement, a majority of all Jews support the agreement at a higher level than does the US population as a whole. (Naturally, among the population at large, opposition to it may well be fuelled by memories of the 1979-80 hostage drama, as well as more recent apocalyptic statements from Iranian religious leaders and politicians about the US and Israel, as well as Iran’s support for groups like Hezbollah).

As the tide began to turn US President Barack Obama’s way on this deal, old-line Republican foreign policy figures like Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor to presidents Gerald Ford and George HW Bush, weighed in with newspaper columns. Scowcroft had written:, “Congress again faces a momentous decision regarding US policy toward the Middle East. The forthcoming vote on the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) will show the world whether the United States has the will and sense of responsibility to help stabilise the Middle East, or whether it will contribute to further turmoil, including the possible spread of nuclear weapons. Strong words perhaps, but clear language is helpful in the cacophony of today’s media.

In my view, the JCPOA meets the key objective, shared by recent administrations of both parties, that Iran limit itself to a strictly civilian nuclear programme with unprecedented verification and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council. Iran has committed to never developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon; the deal ensures that this will be the case for at least 15 years and likely longer, unless Iran repudiates the inspection regime and its commitments under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and Additional Protocol.

There is no more credible expert on nuclear weapons than Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who led the technical negotiating team. When he asserts that the JCPOA blocks each of Iran’s pathways to the fissile material necessary to make a nuclear weapon, responsible people listen. Twenty-nine eminent US nuclear scientists have endorsed Moniz’s assertions.

If the United States could have handed Iran a ‘take it or leave it’ agreement, the terms doubtless would have been more onerous on Iran. But negotiated agreements, the only ones that get signed in times of peace, are compromises by definition. It is what President (Ronald) Reagan did with the Soviet Union on arms control; it is what President (Richard) Nixon did with China.”

As things now appear to have turned out, the Republican-dominated Congress will not be able to block the accord after all. What will remain to be seen will be how bumpy a road to compliance there will be on the part of Iran; how contentious the lifting of specific economic sanctions will be; and how effective a set of security arrangements can be designed to placate the Saudis, the Israelis and others, once the deal is in effect and the money taps begin to flow Tehran’s way from its increased petroleum sales.

Just before the Obama administration gained Mikulski’s support, Robert Einhorn, a former nuclear proliferation negotiator with both the Clinton and Obama administrations, and now affiliated with the Brookings Institute think tank, argued that six measures would strengthen the accord, and would likely placate some opponents as well. For Einhorn, the administration could easily pledge these without provoking any real backlash from the Iranians. Or, as he wrote:

First, the administration should actively build international support for rigorous enforcement of compliance, working with key partners to establish contingency plans for the coordinated re-imposition of sanctions in the event of Iranian violations, including appropriate responses to both small and major infractions.

Second, to counter possible Iranian attempts to delay IAEA access to suspect facilities and conceal incriminating evidence from inspectors, the United States should share intelligence with the IAEA and other states on suspicious activities and on any Iranian efforts to sanitise sites before the arrival of inspectors, and should be prepared to go directly to the Security Council, without waiting for IAEA access, when warranted by the seriousness and time-urgency of illicit Iranian behaviour.

Third, in response to unresolved concerns about Iran’s past nuclear work, the United States should make detection of Iranian weaponisation activities a top US intelligence priority, and should encourage the IAEA to keep the weaponisation issue under review as it considers the ‘broader conclusion’ about the nature of Tehran’s nuclear programme that will provide the basis for a future congressional decision on terminating, not just suspending, US sanctions.

Fourth, Washington should press potential supplier governments to comply with renewed Security Council prohibitions on transferring major conventional weapons and ballistic missile technology to Iran, step up efforts to interdict illicit shipments to and from Iran, and strengthen the conventional military and missile defence capabilities of Israel and Gulf Arab partners to prevent an adverse shift in the regional military balance.

Fifth, to deter Iran from deciding to build nuclear arms once restrictions on its nuclear capabilities expire after 15 years, US presidents, with the formal endorsement of Congress, should publicly commit the United States to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to using any means necessary, including military force, to enforce that commitment. In that connection, Washington should identify privately to Tehran activities that — even if permitted by the nuclear agreement after 15 years — have no plausible peaceful justification in Iran and would be regarded as evidence that Iran had decided to pursue nuclear weapons (eg, production of highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium).

Sixth, while the United States and its regional partners should welcome any genuine Iranian interest in resolving disputes diplomatically, they should remain vigilant against Iran’s use of funds released from restricted overseas accounts to arm, train, and bankroll its proxies, and they should mobilise their collective economic resources and military capabilities — which are far greater than Iran’s — in a coordinated strategy to thwart any Iranian efforts to destabilise and dominate the region. A strong US commitment to remain engaged militarily and diplomatically in the region will be indispensable in re-building the region’s confidence in US leadership and in reassuring our partners that the nuclear deal will not adversely affect their interests.”

It is a good bet, given Einhorn’s standing, that these measures, or something very much like them, are already being considered as backup plans to help mollify would-be opponents, and to encourage wavering nations that it is safe to come on board with the accord. At this point, to generate failure, it would need Iran to prove the agreement’s advocates were wrong in supporting the idea that the P5+1 could find a way to work with Iran — even if sharply antagonistic graffiti keeps being repainted on the gates of the old US Embassy in Tehran. DM

Photo: President Barack Obama talks on the phone en route to George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., to deliver remarks on health insurance reform, March 19, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

For more, read:

  • Mikulski announces her support for Iran nuclear agreement in the Baltimore Sun
  • Here’s how America can really make the Iran deal better at the Brookings Institution website
  • The Iran deal: An epochal moment that Congress shouldn’t squander, a column by Brent Scowcroft in the Washington Post