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Congress readies an ambush, as diplomats narrow gaps

This post was first published in The Hill a publication in D.C. targeted at Congress and other policy leaders. 

Behind the controversy over Bibi Netanyahu’s speech to Congress about Iran, lurks an even more dangerous conflict. The dividing lines of this wider conflict are not simply between Republican leadership and the administration, or between Obama and the Israeli administration, but between Congress and most of the world. By giving Netanyahu a platform no other leader has been accorded, some in Congress are trying to mask where the international consensus on Iran lies.

With promising news this week out of the nuclear talks in Geneva, the international community may be on the cusp of a historic agreement with Iran.  But bills being discussed by Congress could thwart this diplomacy and create a major rift between the U.S. and its allies. One bill promoted by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), could create a vote on the agreement before any deal has the chance to prove itself.

Congress should, of course, have opportunities to exert oversight after any agreement. Ongoing monitoring of Iranian compliance is part of that role. Sanctions can be made to snap back if there is verified evidence of Iranian non-compliance. Ultimately, as any deal is implemented, Congress could refuse to vote to permanently lift sanctions until Iran has a track record of compliance. So why is Congress rushing to move a bill before diplomats have completed their work?The “veto-the-deal” legislation would impact negotiating dynamics even while we’re still at the table. What if President Rouhani moves towards the U.S. position, sells those compromises to the Iranian public and Iranian hardliners, only to have Congress veto the deal? Iranian negotiators would naturally harden positions to mitigate that risk.  Likewise, if Congress signals it will micromanage sanctions relief, the Iranians are less likely to make tough concessions. Any of these measures reduce U.S. negotiators’ leverage.

A comprehensive deal could roll back Iran on the pace of uranium enrichment, the amount of material stockpiled, and the technological sophistication of their nuclear programs. On top of those accomplishments, a deal would add intrusive inspections of and ongoing monitoring at Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Before signing on to an up-or-down vote bill, members of Congress need to picture what would happen the day after an agreement is vetoed. All of the above nuclear safeguards evaporate. Iran would likely retaliate by increasing the pace of its nuclear technology activities.

Then, things get worse. Waiting in line to reestablish links with Iran as a trading partner for cars, carpets, cellphones etc., are the economic powerhouses of China, Russia, the E.U., Brazil, Turkey, and India. Some in Congress dream of bringing Iran to its knees through beefed-up sanctions – after blowing up a deal supported by most of the world. In pushing this dream, Congress points proudly to its past role in pressuring Iran through sanctions. But as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently acknowledged, it took the administration to skillfully build and sustain the international coalition that keeps the economic pressure on. The power of Iran’s demography and resources means that the delicate sanctions regime could collapse if Congress unravells an agreement that many countries have worked towards for over a decade.

Even if, after years of new sanctions, Iran and the U.S. returned to the negotiating table, there would be new facts on the ground in Iran: more advanced centrifuges, larger and more highly enriched uranium stockpiles, and more nuclear sites.  Whatever there is left of the international sanctions coalition, Iran returns to the table having piled up new bargaining chips.

If Congress vetoes diplomacy, Iran hawks get the opposite of what they say they want: Iran can ramp up its nuclear programs while restraints fall away. That sets up a new confrontation: a military one. For years, hawkish think tanks staffed by conservative refugees from past U.S. administrations, have argued that military strikes to obliterate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure are the only real endgame. (Never mind that a new war could easily spiral out of control and that even if strikes go perfectly, nuclear sites can quickly be rebuilt.) For these hawks the collapse of diplomacy is a feature, not a bug.

Long after Netanyahu’s speech ends, and the partisan applause fades, the U.S. will live with the consequences of Congress’ choices about Iran. If Congress chooses to play the spoiler, both isolation and war may follow.

A Congressional veto of a deal would be the type of unilateralism that led to the Iraq war – only this time without the president and with Bibi as the only partner in this loneliest coalition of the willing. Congress should stand down and givediplomacy – and most of the world community – a chance to succeed.