by Ali Gharib
With the self-imposed deadline for Iran nuclear talks looming, obstacles to reaching a deal are emerging mostly from the Iranian side. The majles, or parliament, passed a bill seeking to restrain inspections on Iranian soil. More importantly, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader who has final word on all matters of state, laid out onerous conditions for a deal that, if he holds to his red lines, would make an accord difficult for world powers to agree to.
American hardliners aren’t done yet either. Though they’re fighting from the outside—contrasted with Khamenei, who controls whether Iran inks a deal—the hardliners have launched a vigorous campaign against an accord. There are reports of massive ad buys, totaling millions of dollars, and activism by the powerful pro-Israel lobby flagship, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), against the emerging deal.
One of the U.S. campaigns caught my eye. The shady anti-diplomacy group United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI) launched an ad claiming that “the concessions go too far.” It then immediately cites a Washington Post editorial complaining that “Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will remain intact,” before moving on to the next point. (The copy introducing the ad on the website also says, “The deal leaves much of Iran’s enrichment infrastructure intact.”)
This harkens back to an old demand of critics of diplomacy: that Iran eliminate its domestic nuclear enrichment entirely. The “zero enrichment” position has long been considered unrealistic. Indeed, neither side seriously considered this position going into the negotiations that yielded the November 2013 interim deal and the April 2015 framework.
Many hawks held firm for a long time—and a lot of people who pushed “zero enrichment” are hawks—but they’ve started to fall off little by little. One of the loudest and most influential advocates of “zero enrichment” seems to have softened his line in 2015: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s aides told The New York Times after his controversial congressional speech earlier this year that, despite having made incessant and strongly worded calls for “zero enrichment” in the past, the demand was intentionally left out his remarks on the Hill.
One can also make a purportedly concrete demand and still sound ambiguous notes throughout. Take AIPAC’s five requirements (why always five points?) of a final nuclear deal. The fifth demand veers dangerously close to calling for “zero enrichment”: “A good deal must require Iran to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure and relinquish its uranium stockpile such that it has neither a uranium nor plutonium pathway to nuclear weapons.” Everything after “such that” could be considered a qualifier. But does AIPAC think that any amount of domestic enrichment means a “pathway” to a bomb? That’s unclear.
An Unpopular Position
Nevertheless, the “zero enrichment” demand has always been a non-starter; foreign policy and nuclear policy experts alike agree on this. And if a recent poll is any indication, so do the American people. The Washington Post (whose hawkish editorial board, remember, laments Iran’s remaining nuclear infrastructure) reports:
When voters from politically divergent states of Oklahoma (very red), Virginia (swing) and Maryland (very blue) are given the same information about the Iran deal, the vast majority in each state support the same position.
More than seven in 10 registered voters in each state said the U.S. should pursue a deal allowing Iran to enrich some uranium, according to the surveys by the non-partisan Program on Public Consultation (PPC). A quarter or fewer supported increasing sanctions to push Iran to end its program entirely. Even within each state, clear majorities of Republicans and Democrats came down in favor of a deal allowing Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program rather than demanding a complete end to nuclear enrichment.
The numbers are really something. Last summer, Jim Lobe wrote about a poll where about six in 10 respondents favored a deal along the lines that would allow Iran to maintain some enrichment under rigorous inspections. Other recent polls placed the number of those willing to accept such a deal at a small majority.
Pressure on Cardin
Perhaps the most important result of the PPC poll comes from Maryland, the home of Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, who took over the ranking member role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after the staunch Iran hawk Bob Menendez’s (D-NJ) indictment. In the past, Cardin has joined with hawkish colleagues to press a “zero enrichment” line. But more recently Cardin seems to have dropped that demand, with public opinion likely playing some role in that shift. The senator also played a role in crafting a compromise on the recent bill that gave Congress authority to review an Iran nuke deal. Though still potentially risky, the compromise stripped out enough of the original bill’s destructive provisions that the White House came to reluctantly support it.
Cardin has historically been close to pro-Israel groups like AIPAC, and his support for a deal is far from assured. That’s one of the reasons he’s being targeted by a big ad buy from the American Security Initiative (ASI), a group formed by, among others, former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT). The ASI is probably best known for a previous ad campaign rightly described as “hilariously over-the-top fear-mongering.”
Consider the source of this ad: the über-hawk Lieberman, who’s recently been palling around with the ex-terrorists of the Mojahedin-e Khalq. That alone is enough not to take him and his affiliated groups seriously at all. And that’s what Cardin should do: ignore these pressure groups and listen to his constituents.
It’s crunch time and members of Congress should position themselves so that, if negotiations don’t result in a deal, it can be clearly blamed on the Iranian hard-liners’ overreach. In this regard, “zero enrichment” positions can play a clarifying role. If someone is for them, it probably means they don’t want any deal at all. In fact, they probably favor a disastrous war. It’s a good thing that there are fewer such advocates out there. But that doesn’t mean that we should ignore the dead-enders that are left still making unreasonable demands.
Photo: Benjamin Cardin