This was a bad week for adversaries of a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program.
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday entitled “Dismantling Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Program: Next Steps to Achieve a Comprehensive Deal,” Senators Bob Menendez and Bob Corker presented their respective legislative proposals in opposition to the P5+1 and Iran negotiations. Both bills threaten to undo any progress that’s been made in Vienna on a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
Menendez and Corker had a hand in selecting expert witnesses for the hearing: Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, Gary Samore, president of United Against Nuclear Iran and of Harvard’s Belfer Center, and David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. Given past statements from all three, the deck should have been stacked in their favor. But things didn’t go according to plan.
Republican Senator Rand Paul expressed his optimism about the negotiations based off of Iran’s compliance with the interim deal to date.
“But to my mind [inspections of Iran’s nuclear program] would be better than no negotiations. It would be better than war with Iran. Once we have war with Iran there will be no more inspections. Once the first bomb drops, you’ll never have another inspection inside of Iran,” said Sen. Paul.
He also pressed Samore to concede that our allies would not support sanctions imposed unilaterally by Congress.
Menendez, for his part, would like to move “trigger sanctions” legislation that would automatically impose new sanctions on Iran in the event that the two sides can’t come to an agreement by March 2015. In the words of David Albright, however, this type of legislation is perceived “by the Iranians as putting a gun to their heads and leads them to put together I guess what I would call trigger advancements in their nuclear program…And so there’s worry about that, that the trigger sanctions could backfire.”
Albright suggests that if the U.S. plays its ace of harder economic sanctions, Iran will too. Smothering Iran with sanctions, then, could very well press it to renew its efforts to enrich uranium to a high enough level to build a bomb—the very last thing anyone interested in U.S. national security would want.
In July, Senators Corker and Graham sponsored a separate piece of legislation called the “Iran Nuclear Negotiations Act of 2014.” The bill, which would have forced the Senate to vote on a resolution of disapproval on any final deal with Iran, was ultimately scuttled by Congress. Responding to Corker’s bill, both Samore and Albright pointed to the disconnect between what the Administration and Congress view as the fundamentals of an acceptable deal.“As long as there’s such a divergence in terms of what would constitute an acceptable deal,” said Samore, “I think it’s difficult to come to an agreement on whether Congress should put itself in the position of approving an agreement.”
Of course Menendez, Corker and Graham aren’t the only ones on the Hill trying to derail nuclear negotiations.
At a roundtable discussion with reporters this week, Rep. Mike Pompeo belligerently said, “[in] an unclassified setting, it is under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity. This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces.”
Senate-elect Tom Cotton added his own wild speculation to the mix, speaking on the possibility of Islamist extremists collaborating with Mexican drug cartels to cross the border. “They could collaborate on our southern border because it’s so porous and defenseless could easily be used by a terrorist to infiltrate and attack us,” he said.
Neither Pompeo nor Cotton backed their claims up with facts or rationale, but who needs those? Sen.-elect Cotton’s slippery attempt to tie in immigration to Islamic extremism speaks to a greater theme, a blatant Republican effort to stymie Obama’s potential foreign policy successes across the board. As James Carville points out in the The Hill this week, conservatives can’t stand the idea of a deal with Iran “because they know what Tessio says in ‘The Godfather’ is true, when he finds out Michael would be taking a different car: ‘Hell, he can’t do that; that screws up all my arrangements.’” If the Obama administration is able to strike a successful, verifiable deal (which is still no guarantee) the implications for 2016 could be huge.
A Congressional roadblock is not inevitable, however. Speaking at an event on the Iran negotiations at Brookings, Center advisory board member Ed Levine suggested Congress may be able to draft a sanctions bill tailored to the specifics of what the P5+1 is offering at the negotiating table. This would trigger sanctions only if Iran doesn’t sign on. As it appears, Congress has room to redeem itself. But Ed points out, “That would be a very difficult piece of legislation for Congress because it would involve giving up on more maximalist goals.”
Ultimately, both sides of the debate want the same thing: to stop Iran from getting the bomb. Military action against Iran, as Sen.-elect Cotton suggests, is an irresponsible policy suggestion. Not only because the issue can (and hopefully will) be solved through diplomacy, but a unilateral attack would quickly snowball into yet another war in the Middle East. And additional sanctions, as evidenced by comments from both Samore and Albright, would likely not have the intended consequence of bettering our hand at the table. As much as Congress would like to intervene, or just hates the fact on its face, the most promise for success lies in ongoing negotiations.
Right now, it might be best for the rest of us to sit back and let the folks at the table do their jobs.