7 Q&A: Iran’s Nuclear Program & Netanyahu’s Speech

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Heavy water reactor in Arak, Iran.

1. How Can We Best Prevent Iran From Acquiring Nuclear Weapons?

A nuclear-armed Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel and destabilize the region.

President Obama and members of his administration have repeatedly stated that Iran will be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons and that all options, including the military option, are on the table.

During the Obama administration, Congress passed, and Obama signed into law, increasingly tough sanctions against Iran. The President signed every sanctions bill that Congress sent him. These sanctions hurt Iran economically, because Obama built an international coalition that adhered to the sanctions. But Iran had only accelerated its progress toward nuclear weapons.

On November 24, 2013, the U.S. and its allies entered into an interim agreement with Iran called the Joint Plan of Action (JPA). Under the JPA, Iran agreed to freeze or roll back its nuclear program in return for a limited, reversible sanctions relief. The JPA stopped the clock so that Iran could not advance its program while talks were continuing.

The JPA has been extended twice and will expire on June 30, 2015, but the U.S. hopes that a framework for a final agreement will be in place by the end of March, with the remaining time used to work out the details.

The administration and its allies believe that diplomacy is our best chance to stop Iran. We tried sanctions. They brought Iran to the table, but they did not stop Iran’s progress — only the JPA did that.

Even the most crippling sanctions, assuming that our allies would agree to tougher sanctions, probably would not be sufficient to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons because Iran is already so close. Military action might set their program back, but unless we are willing to invade and occupy Iran, military action would ultimately succeed only in convincing Iran that it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself.

Some lawmakers now want to pass more sanctions legislation or require that any final agreement be approved by Congress. The administration opposes such legislation, and so should we.

2. Is the Joint Plan of Action (interim agreement) Working?

As Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken testified, the interim agreement is working:

Today, as the result of the constraints in the JPA, Iran has halted progress on its nuclear program and it has rolled it back in key areas for the first time in a decade, and it has allowed us to have greater insight and visibility through more intrusive and more frequent inspections.

The Arms Control Association details Iran’s compliance with the terms of the agreement in a chart, and Politifact verified the President’s statement about Iranian compliance.

Meanwhile, as Blinken said, despite the limited sanctions relief, “virtually the entire sanctions architecture remains in place. Indeed, throughout the existence of the JPA, sanctions pressure on Iran has not decreased — it has increased.”

3. How Can a Bill That Imposes Sanctions Only if a Deal is Not Reached Disrupt Negotiations?

The latest version of the Kirk-Menendez bill (sponsored so far by 30 Republicans and eight Democrats, and none of the Democrats want a vote until at least the end of March) would impose sanctions only if we did not reach a final agreement with Iran.

The administration opposes triggered sanctions for several reasons:

  • Such sanctions would be viewed by the international community as violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the JPA, freeing Iran to violate its commitments under the JPA and resume its nuclear program.
  • Such sanctions could provoke Iran to end negotiations.
  • If Iran did not walk away, Iran would likely adopt more extreme positions in response.
  • If our allies perceive that we are not serious about living into up to our commitments, their support for sanctions will wane.

The Brookings Institution’s Robert Einhorn said that new U.S. sanctions legislation would have a troublesome impact “on the internal debate in Tehran and on prospects for positive changes in Iran’s negotiating position”:

Opponents of a deal would seize on the new legislation to argue that the United States is violating the spirit of the JPA, that the U.S. has no intention of ultimately removing the sanctions, and that the U.S. Administration cannot be counted on to deliver its end of any agreement eventually reached.

The critics — whose strong influence has so far impeded the adoption of a pragmatic Iranian negotiating position — would be further strengthened. Playing on Iranian hyper-sensitivity to giving in to foreign pressures, they would demand that U.S. pressure tactics not be rewarded by making concessions in the talks.

Thus, instead of compelling Iran to be more flexible, new U.S. legislation could produce greater defiance, further entrench rigid Iranian negotiating positions, and increase support for the Supreme Leader’s pipedream of an “economy of resistance” that could manage effectively without a nuclear deal. So even if a new sanctions law did not precipitate an abrupt termination of the talks, it could increase the likelihood that the negotiations will ultimately fail.

However, Blinken is the one who spoke about the key point:

We can debate whether any or all of these things would happen. What I can tell you today is that those who are best placed to know — the diplomatic professionals who have been leading these negotiations and dealing directly with the Iranians and our international partners for the past several years — believe that the risks are real, serious and totally unnecessary. That is their best judgment.

Why run those risks and jeopardize the prospects for a deal that will either come together — or not — over the next two months? Why not be patient for a few more months to fully test diplomacy? There is nothing to be gained — and everything to be lost — by acting precipitously.

Iran fully expects that if talks break down, we will enact tougher sanctions. As Einhorn said, “There is no need to legislate those sanctions in advance to ensure their credibility.”

In the meantime, Iran is the country whose nuclear program has been frozen and they are the ones whose economy continues to suffer because of sanctions. As Einhorn said, “Iran, not the United States or its partners… is the clear loser the longer the JPA remains in effect.”

4. What If We Get a Bad Deal?

President Obama and his staff have been as clear as can be on two points: We will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and no deal is better than a bad deal.

The administration’s refusal to sign a bad deal is the reason that the interim agreement was extended twice. We will hear all sorts of unconfirmed rumors about deals that are being contemplated, but do not waste your time: The only deal that matters, if a deal is to be, is the one that will be officially announced. Until then, we can do nothing (except scuttle negotiations and eliminate any hope of a deal, which seems to be the Republican plan).

We should oppose any efforts by Congress to approve a deal. This is not a treaty: This Congress would not have approved the JPA, and this Congress would only approve a perfect deal. But a good deal will not be a perfect deal.

As much as we would like to permanently and forever rid Iran of all nuclear capacity, that is not going to happen. An agreement that, in Einhorn’s words, “would allow a strictly limited and heavily monitored enrichment program” and would lengthen to at least one year, “the time it would take Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a single nuclear weapon,” would be sufficient. The agreement itself would have to last at least ten years.

5. Should Netanyahu Address Congress?

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Iran will take place two weeks before Israel’s election. Netanyahu wants the Israeli public to see members of Congress give him standing ovations. It is also a blatantly partisan effort by Republicans in Congress to enlist Netanyahyu’s aid in lobbying Congress in favor of Republican legislation on Iran.

Netanyahu’s defenders sanctimoniously say that he needs to warn Congress about the threat posed by Iran. I am aware of no members of Congress who do not support preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or who do not know where Bibi stands.

This is not about the U.S. vs. Israel. This is not even Obama vs. Netanyahu. This is about a terrible political miscalculation by Netanyahu and his Republican ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, aided and abetted by the Republican speaker of the house, John Boehner.

Vice President Biden, a pro-Israel stalwart for more than 30 years, will skip the speech. He could not possibly attend following this major and deliberate breach of protocol.

Some Democratic members of Congress also might not attend because the disrespect shown to the President by Boehner and Netanyahu. Let us be clear: Democrats are firmly pro-Israel and firmly in favor of policies that prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. What they are not in favor of is being used as props for a foreign leader’s re-election campaign and to humiliate Obama.

Even Israel’s consul general in Philadelphia, Yaron Sideman, said that the purpose of Netanyahu’s speech is to defy and humiliate Obama:

It is our impression that these people’s support for the speech stems from their identification with, and admiration for, a move to defy and humiliate President Obama, more than from the importance they attribute to the Iranian issue, which should be the center of the speech.

The former Mossad head, Meir Dagan, and a close advisor to Israel’s former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Dov Wiesglass, were also very critical of Netanyahu’s speech, calling it an “excessive provocation” and warning of the “terrible damage” it will do.

In The Jerusalem Post, Douglas Bloomfield wrote similar things:

There is no known precedent for a foreign leader working with the Congressional opposition behind a president’s back to come to Washington to lobby against an administration’s policies… Netanyahu’s supporters are accusing the administration of snubbing the prime minister, but it is actually the other way around. The Congressional appearance was arranged in secret and was intended to be a platform for pressing for new sanctions legislation that Obama has threatened to veto.

Former Congressman Mel Levine was one of Israel strongest advocates when he was in Congress. He wrote an op-ed in Ha’aretz with Israel’s former ambassador to Jordan and the European Union, Oded Eran, stating that Netanyahu’s impending visit breaks away from “the fundamental principles that form the bedrock of Israeli-U.S. relations”:

This relationship should never be owned in the United States by one party, nor should it ever become a political football between Republicans and Democrats. Furthermore, both the United States and Israel should refrain from interfering in the domestic politics of one another.

Netanyahu – who cannot be accused of not understanding U.S. politics or the history of the U.S.-Israeli relationship — is guilty of all three sins.

Levine and Eran suggest that Bibi defuse the situation by meeting with bipartisan leadership instead of addressing a joint session of Congress. But that would make way too much sense.

6. Did Speaker Boehner Inform the White House Prior to Inviting Netanyahu?

In an absurd attempt to pull themselves out of the muck, some of our Republican friends are pointing to a New York Times correction stating that Netanyahu accepted Boehner’s invitation after the White House had been informed of the invitation.

It is supposedly nice that our Republican friends have so much faith in the New York Times that they even read the corrections, but let us get real: Even if true, the correction does not state who supplied this information, or more importantly, exactly who was “informed.” The truth is that the White House was blindsided by the invitation and only learned about it from press reports.

The bottom line remains that Boehner did not consult with the White House or his Democratic counterparts before extending the invitation, and if there was notice — all of two hours — before Bibi accepted, there is really no difference between that and no notice at all. It was a done deal, secretly prepared by the Republicans for weeks without the knowledge of the White House or congressional Democrats.

7. How Will This Affect U.S.-Israel Relations?

The good news from a pro-Israel standpoint is that despite whatever his personal relationship with Netanyahu might be, Obama has been rock-solid in his support for Israel from day one.

During his first term, Obama:

  • ordered the successful assassination of Osama bin-Laden,
  • built the international coalition that enforced the toughest sanctions ever against Iran,
  • restored Israel’s qualitative military edge after years of erosion under the Bush administration (and secretly sold Israel the bunker-busting bombs it requested but did not receive during the Bush administration),
  • increased security assistance to Israel to record levels,
  • requested funding for Iron Dome above and beyond those levels,
  • boycotted Durban II and Durban III,
  • took US-Israel military and intelligence cooperation to unprecedented levels, cast his only veto in the UN against a one-sided anti-Israel Security Council resolution,
  • opposed the Goldstone Report,
  • stood with Israel against the Gaza flotilla, and
  • organized a successful diplomatic crusade against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.

After winning re-election, Obama:

  • spoke out against the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state at the U.N.,
  • reiterated his firm commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,
  • forcefully condemned Hamas while supporting Israel’s right to defend itself,
  • became only the fifth sitting U.S. president to visit Israel, and
  • supported even more funding for Iron Dome, which saved thousands of Israeli lives in the last Gaza conflict.

Obama has continued some U.S. policies that have been in place since 1967, such as vocal opposition and condemnation of settlements, not moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and urging “restraint” on both sides during wars, sometimes in almost the exact words used by the Bush administration. That is par for the course, even if our Republican friends continue to profess shock that the President adheres to decades-old U.S. policy on those issues, both in tone and substance.

Obama’s record on Israel is better than that of any Republican president. If this is how Obama treats Israel when he does not like Israel’s prime minister, imagine how he will treat Israel if Israel elects someone else.

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