by Jim Lobe
After a period of relative (and blissful) quiescence, the Iran hawks are springing back into action, preparing the groundwork for sabotaging any nuclear deal that may be reached by Iran and world powers by July 20 or shortly thereafter. While prospects for an agreement within that time frame remain uncertain — the most important sticking point by far appears to be the gap between US demands that Iran retain only a few thousand centrifuges and Iran’s insistence that it needs many more to meet its energy needs — the hawks (by which I mean the Israel lobby and its many allies in Congress) are taking no chances.
Officially, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ambassador here, Ronald Dermer, still insist that Iran should not be permitted any enrichment capacity whatsoever, even as Israel’s professional national security officials have reportedly agreed with US intelligence (and International Atomic Energy Agency reports) that Iran is fully complying with the Geneva Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) and that Tehran is engaged seriously in seeking a satisfactory resolution of the issue.
For now, however, hawks here appear to be taking their cue more from Netanyahu than the professionals, as this week saw clear evidence of their gearing up for a major fight both within and outside of Congress.
On Thursday, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce — who recently video-cast encouraging words to a conference in Paris organized by the (former) terrorist Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) cult — and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Eliot Engel, released a letter they’d been circulating since late last month now signed by 342 other House members demanding that Obama consult Congress more closely on the ongoing negotiations and suggesting that Iran will have to satisfy Congressional demands on human rights, terrorism, ballistic missile development, and other issues unrelated to the ongoing nuclear negotiations before it will approve major sanctions relief. Here’s the most problematic passage:
Your Administration has committed to comprehensively lifting “nuclear-related” sanctions as part of a final P5+1 [US, UK, France, China, and Russia plus Germany] agreement with Tehran. Yet the concept of an exclusively defined “nuclear-related” sanction on Iran does not exist in U.S. law. Almost all sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program are also related to Tehran’s advancing ballistic missile program, intensifying support for international terrorism, and other unconventional weapons programs. Similarly, many of these sanctions are aimed at preventing Iranian banks involved in proliferation, terrorism, money laundering and other activities from utilizing the U.S. and global financial systems to advance these destructive policies.
Iran’s permanent and verifiable termination of all of these activities – not just some – is a prerequisite for permanently lifting most congressionally-mandated sanctions. This often unnoted reality necessitates extensive engagement with Congress before offers of relief are made to Iran, and requires Congressional action if sanctions are to be permanently lifted. With the July 20 negotiating deadline on the near horizon, we hope that your Administration will now engage in substantive consultations with Congress on the scope of acceptable sanctions relief.
Of course, President Barack Obama himself can provide a certain degree of sanctions relief under executive order as he no doubt intends to if a deal is struck. And there is no doubt that Congress has a role to play in lifting sanctions. But the letter’s assertion that there is no exclusively defined “nuclear-related” sanction against Iran under US law and that any relief can only be extended by addressing a host of non-nuclear-related issues appears calculated to sow doubts about Obama’s ability to deliver among Iran’s leadership, thus strengthening hard-liners in Tehran who argue that Washington simply cannot be trusted. That’s why more than two dozen groups, including Win Without War, MoveOn.org, Americans for Peace Now and the National Council of Churches, called on Royce and Engel (unsuccessfully unfortunately) to clarify the letter’s intent:
Demanding that non-nuclear issues be added to the nuclear negotiations at this time will only ensure that we get no deal and face the prospect of an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program or a disastrous war opposed by the American people.
… It would be a travesty if the very sanctions that Congress enacted under the premise of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons proved to be the obstacle that blocked a nuclear deal.
(It may be worth noting that Royce has raised more money from “pro-Israel” PACs associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee than any other House candidate in the current election cycle, while Engel is number 4 in the rankings — only behind the just-defeated former House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor — according to the latest figures provided by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).
While Royce and Engel were releasing their letter, on one side of the Capitol, Sen. Mark Kirk, by far the biggest Congressional recipient of AIPAC-related funding in his 2010 re-election campaign, teamed up with Marco Rubio, the keynoter at last year’s Republican Jewish Coalition convention, to introduce The Iran Human Rights Accountability Act on the other. Among other provisions, it would impose visa bans and asset freezes against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. It’s just the kind of thing that generates a lot of goodwill in Tehran. Indeed, one of the Act’s chapters could only be interpreted as “regime change:” it declares the “policy of the United States” to be laying “the foundation for the emergence of a freely elected, open and democratic political system in Iran that is not a threat to its neighbors or to the United States and to work with all citizens of Iran who seek to establish such a political system.” Another gift to the hard-liners in Tehran who are as eager to undermine their negotiators in Vienna as the hawks here are to blow up the negotiations.
On Friday came news of yet another letter that is circulating on the Senate side, this one from Lindsey Graham, who has long promoted military action against Iran, and Robert Menendez, who last winter co-sponsored with Kirk the Iran Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2014, which itself was clearly designed to sabotage the JPOA. (Graham, incidentally, is the second-leading recipient of “pro-Israel” PAC funds in the current Senate election cycle after Cory Booker, while Menendez topped the list in the 2011-12 cycle, according to CRP.) Like the Royce-Engel letter, this new one attempts to prescribe to the administration an acceptable deal that would warrant sanctions relief by Congress, specifically with respect to verification and monitoring provisions, disclosure by Iran on possible military dimensions (PMDs) of its nuclear program, and enforcement mechanisms, including making Iran “understand that that the United States reserves all options to respond to any attempt by Iran to advance its nuclear weapons program.”
And, like the Royce-Engel letter, a number of the demands included in the Graham-Menendez letter seem certain to raise doubts about Washington’s good faith and/or Obama’s ability to deliver the sanctions relief Tehran wants. For example, it says “… Iran must dismantle its illict nuclear infrastructure, including the Fordow enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water reactor…” despite the fact that Iran has made clear that, while it is prepared to make major concessions to accommodate international concerns about both facilities, it is not prepared by any means to completely “dismantle” them. Similarly, the letter demands that Iran submit to extraordinary verification and monitoring measures beyond those provided under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol for “at least 20 years,” a time span that is certain to be dismissed as a non-starter in Tehran. In addition, it requires that Iran provide “full details about its nuclear program,” including PMDs, despite the fact that IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano has said it will take much longer than July 20 before his agency would be able to acquire that information, even with Tehran’s full cooperation.
“While the letter is written in terms that are sufficiently vague as to be somewhat meaningless, it could be interpreted in ways that call for outcomes that are not in the cards and could be deal-killers,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association (ACA), told LobeLog Friday.
“The negotiation is now in the final days, so who do these members of Congress think they are influencing? The Iranians? The other P5+1 parties? While members of Congress have legitimate concerns and interests in the outcome, they should wait until there is an outcome,” added Kimball.
“At this point, they can only complicate the talks and make it more difficult to achieve an agreement,” he said.
Meanwhile, outside Congress, neoconservative and other hard-line groups and individuals are also mobilizing what feels like a concerted campaign. Thus, in the latest edition of Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard, the doom-minded and highly defensive duo of Dick and Liz Cheney conclude a lengthy article entitled, “The Truth About Iraq,” with:
[W]e should be clear that we recognize a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to Israel and to other nations in the region, as well. We should refuse to accept any “deal” with the Iranians that allows them to continue to spin centrifuges and enrich uranium. In the cauldron of the Middle East today, accepting a false deal — as the Obama administration seems inclined to do — will only ensure Iran attains a nuclear weapons and spark a nuclear arms race across the region. The Iranians should know without a doubt that we will not allow that to happen, and that we will take military action if necessary to stop it.
Meanwhile, the hard-line neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), the Likudist Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and the ever-hawkish Foreign Policy Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) announced a policy forum for next Thursday, July 17, entitled, “High Standards and High Stakes: Defining Terms of an Acceptable Iran Nuclear Deal.” The forum will feature Kirk, Engel, Rep. Brad Sherman, and Sen. Dan Coats, who previously co-chaired BPC’s task force on Iran. Panelists, according to the announcement, will also include the FDD’s Reuel Marc Gerecht, former Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation Stephen Rademaker, and Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. Given this line-up, it would be most surprising if any of the participants diverted from Netanyahu’s definition of an “acceptable Iran nuclear deal.”
Both Rademaker and Takeyh are currently serving on the Iran task force at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). (Most members of the BPC Iran task force previously co-chaired by Coats moved over to the JINSA task force when the original BPC staff director, Michael Makovsky, was appointed to head JINSA last year.) JINSA announced Friday that its task force, which includes Dennis Ross, as well as Rademaker, Takeyh, and FPI’s Eric Edelman among other well-known hawks, will also hold a briefing on the subject July 28, apparently in the belief that a deal may be concluded by then.
On yet another front, The Israel Project launched Thursday its latest web campaign, “No Bomb for Iran,” complete with a scary black-and-white photo of a mushroom cloud and the slogan, “If Iran Goes Nuclear, Terror Goes Nuclear.” It, too, echoes Netanyahu demands to essentially dismantle Iran’s centrifuges (although it doesn’t say all centrifuges), in addition to “roll[ing] back” its ballistic missile program despite the fact that the administration has clearly stipulated that missiles are not now a subject of negotiation.
So, as the US and its P5+1 partners appear to be closing in on a deal with Iran, the hawks are taking wing. Oh, and AIPAC’s board is supposed to meet here next week.