Iranian Nuclear Deal Down to the Wire Again

Israel’s strongest backers in Congress, most of the members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, and the principal lobbying group for Israel, AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), have offered guidelines for judging whether a deal with Iran is acceptable. In a short video prepared by AIPAC, the group outlines six questions relating to any final nuclear deal with the Iranians:

  1. Will Iran dismantle its centrifuges, now approximately 20,000 in number?
  2. Will Iran dismantle its heavy water reactor in Arak?
  3. Will international nuclear inspectors get access to all the sites in the country they want to visit on short notice?
  4. Will Iran explain aspects of its nuclear program that are linked to a weaponization program?
  5. Will the United States and the rest of the P5 + 1 agree to only gradually reduce existing sanctions on Iran, to match evidence of Iranian compliance with the agreement they have signed?
  6. Will Iran and the P5 + 1 only sign a long term agreement (decades, rather than years), so that Iran does not obtain sanctions relief, and then move towards a nuclear weapons capability when it decides to do so?

The short answers, of course: no, no, no, no, no, no. In fact, the existing interim agreement and the negotiations to date involve a collection of concessions to Iran which make the questions largely irrelevant.

In October, veteran U.S. diplomat and former Senior Director for the Central Region at the National Security Council Dennis Ross elaborated on those concessions:

[The P5+1 negotiators already agreed] to allow Iran to avoid suspending uranium enrichment, despite UN Security Council resolutions mandating it do so; accepting that Iran should be treated like any other NPT signatory after the full implementation of the comprehensive agreement despite its past transgressions; acquiescing to Iran’s insistence that it not acknowledge that it pursued a nuclear weapons program; not including the Iranian ballistic missile program in the proposed comprehensive agreement; accepting Iranian arguments against converting its Arak facility to a light water reactor and shutting down the Fordow facility; and accommodating the Iranian insistence on not dismantling centrifuges (instead, they would perhaps reduce output, disconnect the pipes, and be flexible on how many centrifuges might ultimately still operate).

In short, the U.S. goal appears to be to “freeze” the Iranian activities at today’s level. They are not looking for any “dismantlement” or “rolling back.”

Exactly how the pro-Israel community responds to a deal they don’t like is not entirely clear, especially regarding when it occurs. When Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Illinois Senator Mark Kirk attempted to pass new sanctions legislation a year ago that would kick in if Iran broke any nuclear agreement, Obama -- through his loyal lackey Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid -- applied so much pressure on Democratic senators that the effort was stalled at 59 votes, one short of breaking a filibuster. That effort is worth remembering the next time anyone tries to defend Reid’s alleged pro-Israel credentials, which disappeared under White House pressure.

Kirk and Menendez are likely to try again, and in the next Senate they will have a far more receptive group, with 53 or 54 Republicans. Given the president’s unique ability to diminish the size of the Democrats’ congressional delegation (since he took office, House Democrats lost 71 seats, and probably 14 Democratic senators with Mary Landrieu losing), the Kirk-Menendez effort may not only get to 60, but possibly to a veto proof two-thirds in both the Senate and House. They could pull back some of the existing waivers to sanctions that provide the president great discretion on sanctions relief.

In addition to the Kirk-Menendez sanctions legislation, there may be an attempt to force a consideration of any agreement as a treaty, requiring a two-thirds vote in the Senate. The president has already made clear that he will not bring this nuclear agreement to the Senate, bypassing Congress as irrelevant once again (Obamacare changes, immigration changes, etc.).

The president is not without his backers. When it comes to the Iranian nuclear deal, there are pro-Iran groups that have been active for years, plus Obama’s Jewish blocking back -- J Street -- which adopts every Obama initiative with regard to Israel as its own (especially pressuring Israel on the Palestinian track). J Street is pushing against any opposition to the deal (without even knowing its final terms), and against any new sanctions fallback if Iran fails to comply.

J Street argues that new sanctions, even discussion of new sanctions, would send the wrong signal and possibly kill the deal, giving Iran an excuse to withdraw from talks. The Iranians, of course, are free to label their negotiating partners as the Great Satan and to call for the destruction of Israel, which they actively support in deeds as well as words with their backing of Hamas and Hezbollah, among other terrorist groups. But according to J Street, we need to be conscious of delicate  Iranian sensitivities at this time.

Secretary of State John Kerry was unusually harsh in his criticism of Palestinian Authority incitement after the Jerusalem synagogue attack. Whether that new attitude will carry over to the nuclear negotiations remains to be seen, though I doubt it will. Failure on that front is not an option. At worst, it must be deferred for another six or twelve months.