I trust the Obama administration to get a good deal. – Isaac “Buji” Herzog to Jeffrey Goldberg, Saban Forum, December 2014
For 20 years, three presidents of both major parties proclaimed that an Iranian nuclear weapon was contrary to American and global interests – and that they were prepared to use force to prevent it. Yet negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability… – Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, “The Iran Deal and Its Consequences,” The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2015
As more and more emerges as to what we know – and what we don’t know – about the deal being brewed by the Obama administration with Tehran’s theocracy on its nuclear program, the more mindlessly moronic the pre-election platitudes of the former (and probably, the future) head of Israel’s opposition appear to be.
This disturbing disconnect with reality is starkly reflected in the dramatic developments – grossly under-reported by the Israeli media – in the last few days in the US Congress. For, in striking contrast to Herzog’s credulous naiveté, it seems that a solid majority of US legislators harbor grave doubts as to Obama’s ability to get a good deal.
This sense of distrust was not confined to Republican lawmakers, as underscored by the unanimous bipartisan vote on Tuesday in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for a bill to give Congress a voice on the planned nuclear agreement with Iran, something that the White House had hitherto vigorously opposed.
Under the headline
“Obama yields…” the normally staunchly Obama-philic New York Times dubbed the vote a “rare unanimous agreement.”
Bluntly, it observed:
“An unusual alliance of Republican opponents of the nuclear deal and some of Mr. Obama’s strongest Democratic supporters demanded a congressional role as international negotiators work to turn this month’s nuclear framework into a final deal by June 30… Republicans — and many Democrats — said the president simply got overrun.”
A CNN report echoed this view:
“After months of the White House fighting to keep lawmakers out of the Iran nuclear negotiations, today Congress forc[ed] its way in. Republicans and Democrats united behind a… bill giving lawmakers oversight over any final agreement.”
More on mistrust
The Washington Post, not known for its anti-Obama positions, succinctly conveyed the unease felt by growing numbers in the president’s party. Following Tuesday’s vote it wrote:
“One key Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Christopher A. Coons (Del.), said the administration’s effort to keep the negotiations away from Capitol Hill ‘goes against, in a gut sense, the view that many in Congress have, that our constitutional framework imagines congressional relevance to the conduct of foreign policy.’”
Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, who served as a bridge between the White House, deemed legislative oversight “a congressional prerogative,” adding,
“We are the ones who imposed sanctions; we’re the ones who are going to take [them] off.”
He told the Times:
“We have to be involved here… Only Congress can change or permanently modify the sanctions regime.”
In a video report, the Times’ Emily Hager notes that “… all sides recognize that only congress can permanently remove Iran’s sanctions,” and expresses the gnawing doubts raised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his address last month to Congress as to the “sunset clause” included in the emerging agreement: “Americans are concerned… once the deal has expired in 10 years, will Iran run a peaceful civil nuclear program or begin building bombs?”
‘Trust is the last thing we should do…’
Former Obama adviser on the Persian Gulf region Dennis Ross is unequivocal on this. In response to the question Hager posed, he responded: “… their track record suggests that the last thing we should be doing is trusting them.”
With considerable understatement, Ross cautioned:
“They are very active in terms of trying to change the balance of power in the region,”
and somewhat more trenchantly, asked,
“What happens when they are not under sanctions and they are continuing to act this way and they have more resources to do that?”
What indeed? But more on that later.
Getting back to the political arm-wrestling between the White House and Congress, there appears to be consensus among authoritative pundits that the administration had its hand forced by a rising tide of sentiment against both the reported substance of the deal and the high-handed manner in which it was trying to railroad it through, despite numerous concerns. This view was not confined to compulsive, kneejerk Obama detractors.
Thus under the heading “In setback, Obama concedes Congress role on Iran deal,” Reuters political correspondent Patricia Zengerle wrote:
“Washington… has for months voiced concern that Congress could fatally undermine a deal before a June 30 deadline for a final pact. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Bob Corker, who wrote the bill, said the White House had agreed to go along with the bill only after it was clear there was strong Democratic support.”
Fear of veto-proof opposition
Reuters cited a buoyant Corker as saying:
“That change occurred only when they saw how many senators were going to vote for this,”
“Bipartisan support for the bill had grown in recent weeks to near the 67 votes needed to override any presidential veto.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett remarked that
“faced with what looks increasingly like a vetoproof majority in the Senate, today the White House said the bill, [which it had previously vigorously opposed] appeared to… merit the president’s signature.”
His CNN colleague Athena Jones, when asked to gauge the feasibility of such a veto, appraised:
“Well, it certainly looks as though they are moving to the point where they have those 67 votes.”
“Some of the Democrats who supported this bill are just saying that Congress has a right and an obligation to weigh in on a deal as important as this.”
In similar vein, Politico, considered to have a distinct liberal bias, reported:
“After months of lobbying against the bill, the administration acknowledged it couldn’t stop it… The administration’s about-face came after it was clear that a veto-proof majority, including many Democrats, will support the legislation.”
Long, arduous road ahead
Of course the fight is still far from over.
The road to defanging a nuclear-bent Iran is still long and arduous. As a Wall Street Journal editorial, “Obama’s One-Man Nuclear Deal,” noted this week, the significance of Tuesday’s vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is more declarative than operative, more symbolic than substantive.
It still leaves Obama with considerable ability to out-maneuver and circumvent congressional intervention and allow him to push through some accord with Tehran, however fatally flawed.
It is not, however, a mere gesture devoid of any value. Far from it.
First, it shows that bipartisan measures can be taken despite “Obama’s furious resistance”; second, it shows that veto-proof majorities are distinctly plausible on the Iranian issue; and third, as the editorial put it, “the Iranians [are]… on notice that the United States isn’t run by a single supreme leader.”
The practical significance of these issues should not be belittled, especially given the rising tide of sentiment against the emerging pact, particularly among Democrats, even if troubling doubts and growing skepticism have yet to become full-blooded opposition.
Nurturing these doubts and cultivating that skepticism should be one of the prime objectives of Israeli foreign policy, in general, and of its public diplomacy, in particular.
Symbiosis between symbolism, shifting sentiment & substance
In politics, there is a definite and discernible symbiosis between symbolism, sentiment and substantive political action.
The opponents of the deal must harness this chain of symbolism and sentiment- shift to impact substantive policy, by underlining how incompetent and counterproductive the current endeavor has been.
They must use this to generate resistance to its continuation in its current mode, and introduce a paradigm shift into its conduct.
It would be difficult to find a more telling illustration of how the Iranians have outfoxed their American interlocutors than that provided by the Kissinger and Shultz article cited above. The two former secretaries of state lament:
“Mixing shrewd diplomacy with open defiance of UN resolutions, Iran has gradually turned the negotiation on its head.
Iran’s centrifuges have multiplied from about 100 at the beginning of the negotiation to almost 20,000 today. Under the proposed agreement, for 10 years Iran will never be further than one year from a nuclear weapon and, after a decade, will be significantly closer.”
In a January 29 appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kissinger bemoaned how the US-led international effort has been stymied by Iranian resolve and resourcefulness:
“Nuclear talks with Iran began as an international effort, buttressed by six UN resolutions, to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option. They are now an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability through an agreement that sets a hypothetical limit of one year on an assumed breakout. The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.”
Restoring strategic clarity
There are numerous reasons why the proposed deal with Iran would be unworkable and lead either to serious kinetic US entanglements, involving an Iran with greatly enhanced capabilities, both economic and military, or to ignominious US surrender.
For example, Kissinger and Shultz make a compelling case for why ongoing inspections and enforcement over a period of a decade, “enforcing compliance, week after week,” will be untenable. They warn:
“In a large country with multiple facilities and ample experience in nuclear concealment, violations will be inherently difficult to detect. Any report of a violation is likely to prompt debate over its significance – or even calls for new talks with Tehran to explore the issue.”
It was coercive measures – biting sanctions – and not persuasive negotiating skills that brought Iran to the table. But sanctions alone will not bring Iran to forgo its nuclear ambitions. That will be achieved only by a credible threat of military action – which Obama has effectively taken of the table by informing the world that the current proposal must be embraced, since the alternative is war.
On this Kissinger and Shultz remark:
“The threat of war now constrains the West more than Iran. While Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession, the West has felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new proposal.”
They warn: Until clarity on an American strategic political concept is reached, the projected nuclear agreement will reinforce, not resolve, the world’s challenges in the region.
Indeed it will.
Vindicated, validated, not yet victorious
The events in Washington in the past few weeks have done much to vindicate and validate Benyamin Netanyahu’s approach to the Iranian issue. For it would be mean-spirited and small-minded not to credit the recent more assertive and muscular attitude of US lawmakers toward the administration, in large measure, to the impact of his rousing March 3 address to Congress – despite massive pressures to call it off.
Further, these developments show how uninformed/misinformed his detractors were when they berated him for resisting these pressures – scornfully but speciously alleging that the Congress cannot affect US foreign policy, since this is the exclusive prerogative of the president, which it clearly is not.
One can only wonder, with a keen sense of regret, how much more effective his address would have been if, at least on the Iranian issue, his domestic rivals had put country above party and personal ambition, and rallied behind his valiant effort – thus preventing the administration from exploiting political rifts in Israel to blunt his appeal.
Netanyahu deserves considerable praise for his resolve on the Iran issue. (Oh that he would demonstrate similar resolve on the Palestinian front.) But although his actions have largely been vindicated and his approach validated, he is yet to be victorious in preventing the disastrous deal being hatched in Lausanne.
To achieve such victory he must, without delay, mount an aggressive, adequately funded campaign to sway concerned but still hesitant US lawmakers that in their hands lies the most fateful decision for humanity since the 1930s, when the world paid a horrendous price in a doomed attempt to appease tyranny.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (www.
First published at the Jerusalem Post