by Paul R. Pillar
Those determined to kill any agreement with Iran have trotted out a succession of rationales for doing so but have kept their focus firmly fixed on the U.S. Congress. That is hardly surprising, given that both houses of Congress are now controlled by the anti-Obama party and Congress is where the lobby that acts on behalf of the right-wing government in Israel exerts its power most directly. There have been multiple legislative vehicles that the anti-agreement forces have tried to use. Earlier ones had to do with using new sanctions to throw a wrench in the negotiating process, but currently the opponents’ most viable vehicle is a bill sponsored by Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that would call for the Congress to do a quick vote on an agreement well before any legislation to implement the agreement was actually required.
By the standards of Congressional Republicans, Corker seems relatively reasonable and pragmatic, as reflected in his being one of the few senators in his party to abstain from signing that outrageous letter telling the Iranians not to trust the United States to keep its word in international agreements. But let’s be honest about the game that is being played; it’s still the same game that has been played all along, which is to take as many whacks as possible against the nuclear agreement and the negotiations leading to it and to hope that at least one of the whacks will be fatal. There is no way that the Corker bill—given the posture and approach of the majority party on this issue as indicated by the letter to the Iranians—could strengthen the basis of the agreement, or show that the United States is united, or have any positive result. The best result that could be hoped for from the kind of hasty vote that the bill calls for would be that an attempt to override a presidential veto of a resolution of disapproval would fall a few votes short—hardly the sort of scenario that makes foreign interlocutors more willing to take risks in dealing with Washington.
The nature of the game comes through clearly in some of the details of the bill,which contains booby-traps designed to maximize the chance of killing the deal. One provision, for example, requires the president to certify every 90 days that Iran “has not directly supported or carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or a United States person anywhere in the world.” So if, for example, Israel hits Lebanese Hezbollah and Hezbollah retaliates with a bomb somewhere that damages a U.S.-owned commercial property, the president cannot make that certification and poof, there is no more nuclear agreement.
The Corker bill does not even do what the bill purports to do, which is to give Congress a say on the nuclear agreement that it supposedly otherwise would not have had. Congressional action will be required in any case to enable any later sanctions relief that goes beyond what could be granted with a presidential waiver. Even before then, Congress could—with or without Corker’s bill—pass a resolution of approval, or disapproval, or indifference regarding the nuclear deal any time it wants. What the bill does is to make it seem obligatory for Congress to pass a resolution hastily, as well as to make it clearer to the Iranians and to everyone else that Congressional disapproval would in fact kill the deal.
The bill calls for a rush to judgment. One of the provisions that demonstrates this is the bill’s requirement for the executive branch to present to Congress within five days after an agreement is reached a comprehensive, fully coordinated assessment of the ability to verify all the agreement’s provisions. Such an assessment is indeed an important part of evaluating the deal. But the timetable is ludicrous, and is one of the best indications in the bill of a lack of seriousness about wanting to consider the deal carefully. Those in the executive branch who will have analyze the verification issues will be fortunate just to get an authoritative copy of the agreement within five days after it is signed.
If members were really to be pragmatic and reasonable, they would ask: “Why the rush?” The risks of hastiness are nearly all on the side of hasty disapproval rather than letting implementation of the agreement begin. Hasty disapproval would mean collapsing the whole diplomatic process associated with the agreement, losing the restrictions on the Iranian program embodied in the Joint Plan of Action reached more than a year ago, and losing allied support for continued sanctions given that Washington clearly would be responsible for killing the arrangement. Letting implementation of the agreement begin, on the other hand, would be only the start of what will be a very gradual process in which most of the sanctions relief that Iran seeks would only come later, after perhaps a couple of years of Iranian adherence to the deal. The early phase of implementation will be an extension of the testing period (already begun under the Joint Plan of Action) in which Iran will have to demonstrate its commitment to live by severe restrictions on its nuclear program and to keep that program peaceful. Anyone in Congress or anywhere else who really wants to deliberate carefully on the deal ought to welcome that testing period rather than trying to short-circuit it.
The real answer to the question, “Why the rush?” is that opponents of any agreement with Iran want to kill this particular agreement before it has a chance to demonstrate its success. If a couple of more years go by in which Iran continues to observe stringent restrictions on its nuclear program and its commitment to a non-nuclear-weapons future, it will become harder than ever for opponents to argue with a straight face that it would be in U.S. interests to destroy the arrangement that had brought about that result.
This dynamic involves another parallel with the politics surrounding the Affordable Care Act, in addition to that act being, like a nuclear deal with Iran, one of the biggest achievements for President Obama and thus among the biggest things that the anti-Obama party would love to kill. As successes of the ACA have continued to become clear, the fear has grown among members of that party that, as newly declared presidential candidate Ted Cruz has put it, Americans will come to like Obamacare so much that it will be more difficult than ever for Republicans to repeal it. As with Obamacare, what opponents of a nuclear agreement with Iran fear most is not the agreement’s failure but rather its success.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.