Congress is now on a 60-day clock (two days gone already) to offer its verdict on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal with Iran is formally known. There are plenty of concerns about the agreement being raised even by Democrats such as Dennis Ross and Les Gelb. In the Senate, Politico reports, several Democrats have expressed disquiet. If enough Democrats defect (admittedly an unlikely scenario), there is the possibility not only of voting down the treaty but also overriding President Obama’s expected veto.
Faced with this opposition to his signature foreign policy achievement, Obama has a hard-ball tactic and a specious argument.
The tactic is to present the agreement for early approval by the United Nations Security Council, something that he could do as soon as next week. If the UN Security Council approves the plan, that will put added pressure on Congress to go along, lest it be accused of sabotaging an international consensus. Sens. Bob Corker and Ben Cardin, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who helped to pass a bipartisan bill giving Congress a 60-day review period, are protesting this White House tactic, but there is no question that it would be effective.
The argument is simple — and oft-repeated. As Obama never gets tired of saying: “Without a deal we risk even more war in the Middle East.” In other words, there is no credible alternative to the current agreement–since no one presumably is in favor of “more war.”
Obama’s argument is superficially compelling but breaks down on several levels.
First, his deal with Iran makes war more, not less, likely. After all, even by the best case scenario, at the end of ten years’ time Iran will be left as a nuclear threshold state — only a turn of the screw away from being a full-fledged nuclear power — with a powerful arsenal of conventional weapons and ballistic missiles. In the meantime, Tehran would have been enriched with well over $100 billion, some portion of which undoubtedly will be used to support terrorists and militias in neighboring states.
Faced with the growing power of the new Persian Empire, the Arab states will not stand idle. They will arm themselves with more conventional and nuclear weapons, and they will support Sunni extremist groups such as the Nusra Front and possibly even the Islamic State as a hedge against Iranian-supported proxies such as Hezbollah and the Badr Organization and the Houthis. This is a recipe for an even more combustible Middle East where the risk of war rises, not falls.
And — a significant point — the kind of war we risk in the future is far worse than in the present. Fighting an Iran armed with nuclear weapons and the best conventional arms and ballistic missiles that their oil billions can buy will be substantially more difficult than fighting today’s Iran which is still severely constrained by sanctions. In fact, a conflict with Iran today would most likely resemble Bill Clinton’s Operation Desert Fox, four days of air strikes against Iraq in 1998. A conflict with Iran in the future will be a much more serious undertaking. That will make Iran feel bullet-proof as it expands its domination of a region with nearly half of the world’s proven oil reserves.
Obama’s argument falls apart for another reason as well: There is an alternative to both his treaty and to war with Iran. That alternative is a better treaty, one that actually dismantles Iran’s nuclear program rather than preserving it. Ah, but the president will say, getting such an agreement is impossible. Iran would never agree.
Maybe, maybe not. Recall that the only time when Iran actually stopped its nuclear weapons work was in 2003, right after the successful U.S. invasion of Iraq, because that was the one moment when it feared American military action. But then U.S. forces became bogged down in Iraq, and the threat faded. Under President Obama, there has been no threat at all because he has made clear that he views bombing Iran as a greater danger than allowing Iran to get the Bomb.
Imagine if the situation were different. Imagine if Obama asked for and received from Congress an Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iran. Imagine if Obama issued an ultimatum to Iran to dismantle all of its centrifuges or face military action. Imagine if Obama actually began bombing the forces of Iran’s client, Bashar Assad, to make clear that he was serious. And finally imagine if, instead of negotiating to lift all sanctions, Obama deployed all of his rhetorical and political skills to strengthen sanctions, including lifting waivers that have allowed American allies in Asia to continue doing business with Iran.
This is, admittedly, in the realm of fantasy. It would never happen. But it could happen, at least theoretically. It is all within the president’s power to do, and if it were done it might well ratchet up sufficient pressure on the mullahs to force them to make much more meaningful concessions than they have made to date.
The point of this thought experiment is simply to show that, at least in theory, there is an alternative to the terrible treaty that Obama has negotiated–and it doesn’t embroil the United States in World War III. It merely involves the kind of coercive diplomacy that Obama has been unwilling to carry out.