Just when it seemed we might escape the political tides pushing the United States toward war with Iran, a group of senators has introduced a bill that would put us back on the path to war. We might as well call it the “give war a chance” bill.
Until recently there had been a general consensus in Washington in favor of sanctions against Iran. Although Washington’s two foreign policy factions—arms controllers and regime changers—diverged in their ultimate goals, as long as Tehran kept methodically expanding its uranium enrichment capability (from a few hundred centrifuges in 2005 to 19,000 today and from 5 percent enrichment to 20 percent), the two sides could often agree on a policy of economic strangulation against Iran, backed up with the threat of military attack.
That coalition between Washington’s arms controllers and regime changers was shattered, though, following the 2013 election victory in Tehran of a moderate, President Hassan Rouhani, who is aggressively pursuing an entente with the West. While the arms controllers, led by President Barack Obama, are trying to avert a war by reaching an accord with Iran, the regime changers are doing everything they can to sabotage such an accord through a Senate bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013, co-authored by Sen. Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and Sen. Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois. Of course, being against arms control and for an increased likelihood of war is like being against motherhood and apple pie, so the regime changers are pretending to help the arms control negotiations they seek to undermine.
The geopolitical landscape first shifted in November 2013 after an extraordinary icebreaking phone call in September between Presidents Rouhani and Obama. Iranian and Western negotiators went on to achieve a modest but—given decades of animosity—historic agreement in Geneva. In exchange for an easing of sanctions worth about $7 billion, the Iranians agreed to cease work on their reactor at Arak, freeze the building of new centrifuges, cap uranium enrichment well below bomb-grade at 5 percent, and allow international inspectors greater access. This agreement was the appetizer for the more substantial deal Western and Iranian diplomats are now trying to negotiate—one with the potential to freeze Tehran’s seemingly inexorable progress toward a nuclear weapon indefinitely, while reintegrating the country into the international system and permanently realigning the relationship between Iran, its neighbors, and the United States.
Rolling back Iran’s nuclear program has thus far been the publicly stated rationale for sanctions. But a faction of the US foreign policy community, dominated by the neoconservatives who brought about the disastrous invasion of Iraq, has always had the more ambitious, if less candidly avowed, objective of ousting the regime that came to power in Tehran in 1979. In the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq, neoconservatives liked to quip that “anyone can go to Baghdad. Real men go to Tehran.” Neocons like William Kristol, Doug Feith, Eliot Cohen, Paul Bremer, and Danielle Pletka (all of whom have signed a letter to the Senate endorsing the Menendez-Kirk approach) have never forgiven the Iranian regime for its humiliating seizure of American hostages at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. And they believe that the removal of Iran’s clerical regime would ameliorate the situation in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq; cripple Hezbollah; dispose of the main threat to Israel in the neighborhood; and re-establish American dominance in the region. Of course, they had similarly utopian dreams for the invasion of Iraq, and look how that turned out.
In a recent opinion piece for The Washington Post, Senator Menendez (or is that Senator Mendacious?) presented his legislation as intended to help negotiations with Iran succeed. “The proposed legislation is a clarifying action. It allows all sides to negotiate in certainties and provides one year of space for the parties to continue talking. It spells out precisely the consequences should the agreement fail. This should motivate Iranians to negotiate honestly and seriously. At the same time, these prospective sanctions play a positive and reinforcing role in negotiations.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Even by the currently degraded standards of Washington discourse, this is a pretzel-shaped representation of reality. It is for good reason that President Obama has promised to veto the Menendez-Kirk legislation if it passes, and 10 Senate committee chairs have co-signed a letter to Senate majority leader Harry Reid condemning it.
Edward Levine, a former Senate staffer, has posted an excellent analysis of the Senate bill’s dangers on the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s website. He foregrounds four poison pills that it contains.
First, for sanctions against Iran to be suspended, the bill requires the President to certify that “Iran has not conducted any tests for ballistic missiles with a range exceeding 500 kilometers.” As Levine points out, this moves the goalposts on Iran since missile tests have not been a part of the negotiations thus far. Furthermore, since the bill specifies no time period during which such missile tests are disallowed, and Iran has conducted such tests in the past, by some interpretations the bill will preemptively exclude lifting sanctions.
Second, the bill would allow sanctions to be lifted only if the US president certified that “Iran has not directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world.” Again, no time period is specified. As Levine observes, this means that “if, say, Hezbollah were to explode a bomb outside a US firm’s office in Beirut, the sanctions would go into effect (because Iran gives financial and other support to Hezbollah) even if Iran’s nuclear activities and negotiations were completely in good faith.”
Third, the bill would preauthorize sanctions, but waive them every year if the US Congress agreed that Iran was meeting its commitments. From the Iranian point of view, this would weaken any agreement by introducing the possibility that Congress could allow it to lapse. Iran could end up dismantling nuclear infrastructure only to find itself dealing with a new Congress that decided it had not done enough, or one so paralyzed it could not prevent the trap it had devised from snapping shut.
Finally, Levine points out that the bill requires the dismantling of Iran’s “enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and facilities, the heavy water reactor and production plant at Arak, and any nuclear weapon components and technology.” While it might be conceivable that this could happen many years in the future at the end of a multi-stage process, it is unreasonable in the near term to expect Iran to give up the nuclear infrastructure, permitted by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, for which it has paid so dearly, and in which it sees a hedge against possible security threats.
As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl puts it in The National Interest, “given the significant financial investment—estimated to be at least $100 billion—and political capital the regime has expended to master uranium enrichment, the supreme leader will not agree to completely dismantle Iran’s program as many in Congress demand. Indeed, Khamenei probably fears such a humiliation more than he fears economic collapse or targeted military strikes against his nuclear facilities.” In other words, this provision in the Kirk-Menendez bill, tantamount to a demand for Iranian surrender, is an offer Tehran cannot accept—but can be blamed for refusing.
There is one more troubling clause in the Senate bill. It states that "if the government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States government should stand with Israel,” calling for “diplomatic, military and economic” support in such circumstances. In other words, it effectively outsources to Israel the decision over whether the United States should go to war with Iran. No wonder the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has been pushing so hard for the bill on Capitol Hill. (Incidentally the Jewish lobby groups J Street and Americans for Peace Now oppose the bill.)
The Kirk-Menendez bill has 59 co-sponsors—just eight shy of the number needed to override a presidential veto. It is astonishing that such a disastrous piece of legislation could have so much support in what we used to be able to call, with a more or less straight face, the world’s greatest deliberative body. Kahl, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense, believes the bill would violate the agreement already reached with Iran in November. The Iran expert Trita Parsi warns that “if the Geneva deal falls apart as a result of Congressional foul play, the world will view the United States and not Iran as the main obstacle to a nuclear agreement,” and that the international sanctions regime may fall apart as a result. Representative Raúl Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, and Kate Gould of the Friends Committee on National Legislation laid out what's at stake, pointing out that "if Congress isn't careful, it will sabotage our country's best opportunity to prevent war and a nuclear-armed Iran.” Meanwhile many commentators have cautioned that the bill will actually strengthen the hardliners in Tehran and, by sabotaging the chance to reach an agreement, make it more likely that the United States will face a stark choice between accepting a nuclear-armed Iran and going to war.
But the bill is above all dangerous because of the reckless way in which it creates two dead man’s switches—protocols that automate escalation and weaken the grip of American decision-makers on decisions about war and peace. One dead man’s switch is the pre-emplacement of sanctions and the insistence that action must be taken every year to prevent them from being implemented. One would have thought that Congress had learned from its experience with the automatic budget cuts of the 2013 sequester not to play this kind of game with itself.
The second, and even more disturbing, dead man’s switch is the clause pressing the United States to follow Israel to war. Reminiscent of the catastrophic alliance obligations that historians now blame for ensnaring Europe in the First World War, this stipulation incites Israeli hardliners by making them think they have a blank check from the United States. It also willfully and deliberately moves the center of gravity of the decision making outside the United States.
Neoconservatives like to use the rhetoric of patriotism to discredit their opponents. But true patriots do not outsource national-security decisions to other countries.