Though a vote won’t be held on a new Iran sanctions bill until late March, the question of what is exactly going on in the talks between the West and Tehran deserves more attention. The chattering classes have focused largely on a pointless dispute about whether Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak to Congress in March about Iran. But the real issue is the substance of the current negotiations. As a Washington Post editorial noted yesterday, the clear intent of the Obama administration is to acquiesce to Iran’s demands to be allowed to keep its nuclear infrastructure as well as treat the regime, as a legitimate regional power in the Middle East is no longer in much doubt. That leaves observers asking two very important questions. One is whether Iran can be trusted to keep the terms of any nuclear deal it signs. The other is whether the Obama administration can be trusted to hold the Iranians accountable.
As the Post points out, the danger inherent in the administration’s Iran policy is that by letting them keep thousands of centrifuges and a nuclear stockpile that could be quickly re-activated to allow it to build a weapon, the terms currently being discussed will, at the very least, allow the Islamist regime to become a threshold nuclear power. Though he continues to insist, as he has since he first started running for president in 2007, that he won’t let Iran get a nuclear weapon, the president doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Why? The answer is that Obama believes that the U.S. and Iran have common interests that will allow them to cooperate together in the region and that the ayatollahs have too much to gain from a reconciliation with the West in terms of their nation’s economy to want to risk it all by building a bomb.
But the problem with that formulation is that it is fundamentally mistaken. Iran has no interest in America’s need for regional stability and preserving moderate Arab regimes allied with the West, let alone protecting the existence of the state of Israel. To the contrary, it hopes to threaten both the Arab states and Israel via the threat of a nuclear weapon as well as keeping the pressure on them through the use of its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries and allied terror groups like Hamas. Yet Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon as well as its progress on ballistic missiles means that this is a problem that concerns the entire West and not just Israel and the Arabs.
That is why the bipartisan sanctions bill proposed by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez is so important. It provides at least a measure of accountability to the process since it raises the price for Iran for dragging out negotiations or for continuing to refuse to accept even another weak deal with the West like the interim agreement signed in November 2013.
Even more to the point, is the question of whether even a weak deal, such as the one Obama and Kerry embraced in 2013 can be enforced by this or subsequent administrations. To date, the administration has refused to take seriously charges that the Iranians are already cheating on the interim deal. The dynamic of the process is such that the president views any such questions or even threats of more sanctions with hostility because he sees them as a threat to his goal of a rapprochement with Iran.
This is problematic because so long as Iran believes that Washington won’t take violations of a nuclear deal seriously, it will feel free to push the envelope on more cheating. Since the president has already conceded that, as the Post wrote, “a process that began with the goal of eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons has evolved into a plan to tolerate and restrict that capability,” it is difficult to believe the Islamist regime will think it need worry about the president abandoning a process to which he has become so devoted no matter what they do.
That brings us back to the question of the sanctions bill. Realists must understand that even if the bill is passed and then a threatened presidential veto is overridden, Congress can’t stop Obama from negotiating with Iran and coming up with a bad deal. Nor is it likely that it will be able to force him to put such a treaty to a vote as the Constitution demands since the president will seek to evade that requirement.
Indeed, even if the bill were to become law, the president could also use waivers in the legislation to prevent its enforcement. This is something of a poison pill that was forced on its sponsors by both political expediency (getting more Democratic votes) and legal technicalities (existing sanctions laws also have waivers that could be used by Obama to thwart this bill). But to the credit of both Kirk and Menendez, they have attempted to write their waivers in such a way as to constrict the president from wantonly ignoring the intent of Congress. Though this and other administrations have used waivers to flout the meaning of laws, doing so in this case will involve not merely a desire on the part of the president to ignore Congress but a willingness to lie about Iran’s conduct.
This is a president who has already demonstrated on a host of issues but most notably on immigration that he is not constrained by the normal Constitutional order or even the rule of law. That means that it is difficult to have confidence that any waiver, no matter how carefully it is drafted, will be able to force the president to hold Iran accountable.
That, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Iran talks. It’s not just that given its record as well as its regional and nuclear ambitions, Iran is not to be trusted. It’s that President Obama can also not be trusted to pursue a policy that is aimed at stopping Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear power. Without such accountability, there is no reason for Congress or the American people to trust the outcome of the negotiations.