by Ali Gharib
Well, it’s finally upon us. The nation’s most influential Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is declaring war on the Iran nuclear deal, a signature achievement of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. AIPAC has at long last come out directly against the deal, urging Congress to vote against it in order to scuttle the accord. (According to a recently passed law, if Obama cannot sustain a promised veto against a resolution of disapproval in either chamber, he will be barred from issuing the sanctions relief central to a deal.)
I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to go check out their objections for yourself—except to note briefly that I think their goals for talks were, from the get-go, unattainable, and remain so. I mention this because what I do want to discuss is what AIPAC wants to happen next. As I said, they hope Congress will scuttle the current deal. Here’s how their press release concludes:
We strongly believe that the alternative to this bad deal is a better deal. Congress should reject this agreement, and urge the administration to work with our allies to maintain economic pressure on Iran while offering to negotiate a better deal that will truly close off all Iranian paths to a nuclear weapon.
Congress should insist on a better deal.
Easy, right? Not so much. There are a lot more moving parts than AIPAC’s policy preference implies. Let’s game some of them out.
The AIPAC Scenario
Say Congress rejects this deal. Then Obama vetoes it. Then, in no small part because of AIPAC’s balls-to-the-wall lobbying against the deal, Republican hawks manage to peel off enough Democrats to override the veto. Then Obama is blocked by law from waiving Iran sanctions, and the nuclear deal collapses before implementation even begins. The big question: Then what?
AIPAC insists that the “alternative to this bad deal is a better deal,” but how does one get there? One way would be to say to the Iranians, Uh, hey guys. That was tough for you, but you gotta give us more, because of the Israel Lobby. But that’s not going to work: the 20 months of talks since the signing of the interim accord in Geneva—which AIPAC did not publicly object to—were a painstaking affair marked by compromises and concessions.
Excluding war as a preference—an exclusion I’m dubious about, in AIPAC’s case—leaves more pressure. But there’s a problem with this, too. When Obama says that “99 percent of the world community” is behind this deal, that might be an exaggeration, but the five permanent members of the UN Security Council already signed this thing. The Security Council Resolution that complements the Vienna agreement will almost assuredly pass. That the deal will then carry the imprimatur of the legitimate body of world governance isn’t really the issue—Israel and Congress are no strangers to isolating themselves, internationally speaking—but rather what that imprimatur means for re-imposing sanctions.
Almost all the sanctions created by a combination of American presidential orders, congressional legislation, European Union actions, and UN measures (the International Crisis Group put together a helpful interactive display of this a while back) depend on international compliance. Since coercion plays a big part—these sanctions impose penalties for violations or freeze companies out of the American financial system—that cooperation isn’t wholly dependent on goodwill. But if there’s no will whatsoever for foreign governments or companies to bend to the restrictions sanctions impose, then the sanctions won’t have any bite. Rejecting a deal that many of the world’s powers and the body of world government has already agreed to would be exactly the way to destroy any semblance of good will.
So, at this point, sanctions can’t really be reimposed in any sort of biting way without an Iranian violation of the agreement—and even then, it will take several years for sanctions to build back up to the maximum impact they achieved. That leaves AIPAC and its allies in search of a “better deal” with no leverage.
Then there’s what the Iranians will do, absent a deal or any new pressure. I never bought that the Islamic Republic was hell-bent on the bomb, but they certainly do love needling world powers. In the event of a collapsed deal, they could do just that by beginning to install advanced centrifuges and stockpiling fissile material. They would not likely provide legitimacy to the hawkish campaign against them by initiating a bona fide weapons program by enriching uranium to weapons grade or working on military-related aspects of design. This is, after all, what they’ve done for the past dozen years. But now with the aforementioned lack of international buy-in for renewed pressure against their economy, Iran becomes a virtual shoe-in to get a “screwdriver’s turn” away from building a bomb, and quickly (which, incidentally, I suspect is as far as they were ever going).
So AIPAC is out searching for a “better deal” with no leverage and with an accelerating Iranian nuke program. As Dafna Linzer eloquently pointed out, even if leverage were attainable, the Iranians have managed progress on their nuke program before under pressure. That’s only going to make a “better deal” harder to get. Insofar as another deal exists at all, it’s probably going to be worse. Perhaps a “better deal” was available before November 2013, when Iran and world powers inked the Geneva accord. But since then diplomacy has continued on a steady trajectory, arriving where we are today.
You almost have to feel bad for AIPAC. By waiting to reject the deal after it was signed, they put themselves in an impossible position, trying to override a deal that, by virtue of literally being a fait accompli, means there is no going back to before it was signed. Don’t feel too bad for them, though. AIPAC’s position has always been impossible—impossible to achieve through a negotiated pact, at least. Surely the group’s policy analysts are well aware of the aforementioned dynamics. Surely they understand that an unshackled Iran will accelerate its program as a big middle finger to the world. And surely they understand that the clock on reimposing pressure will ultimately be longer than the clock on an Iranian nuke capability. That’s a much worse position for the West to be in than we had in 2010 through 2012, when the war chatter ran high in Washington and Tel Aviv
So if sanctions won’t work again, or quickly enough, and we arrive at that sort of crisis, what will happen? We will truly have arrived at the crossroads where one path leads to war—likely to spur, remember, an Iran nuclear capability itself—and the other to a de facto nuclear capable Iran, but without all the war. Which one do we really think AIPAC will choose at that point? Probably a last-ditch effort at striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, then having to do it all over again to continue periodically setting back Iran’s program, which by this point will be buried deep underground and harder to hit.
None of that sounds very nice. But it’s hard to see another scenario developing if Congress rejects the Iran nuclear deal. They ought to think long and hard about this vote—and so should AIPAC. And if Congress does scuttle the agreement and war breaks out, we’ll know whom to blame.