War Won’t Happen If Congress Sinks Deal

President Barack Obama is four senators away from cementing a major foreign policy legacy. He technically could already give himself a pat on the back for getting the deal passed since the House is in a position to sustain a veto override but he’d be jumping the gun since the sentiment in the Senate could potentially tempt some supporters in the House to second guess themselves. Pro-deal Democrat Representatives definitely won’t be breaking ranks once they see the Senate is safely on the President’s side and that will be the day to celebrate. That time is near at hand since Senator Bob Corker isn’t sure if the deal’s opponents can even fend off a filibuster. So how did the administration pull off what will be touted as a remarkable victory? In truth, it’s because the geopolitical reality of the situation made defeating the agreement unthinkable, which means the opposition to the deal is—and was always—fictitious. The official reason that we’ll read in the reams of commentary, however, will be that Obama successfully made use of the universal aversion of the American people to another military misadventure in the Middle East with his ‘it’s this deal or war’ mantra. The funny thing is, of all the negative repercussions that would befall Washington if the deal were scrapped, a preemptive U.S. war would be the least likely of them.

For years I’ve pointed out that all the tough talk from the U.S. and Israel about a military option against Iran has been a bluff—one that will someday be viewed as legendary by future historians. I can see them marveling at the bluff’s boldness and saying “How could anyone have taken such prattle seriously when war with Iran was such an obviously awful, awful idea? Going it alone and striking Iran without a broad international coalition–far from being a last resort–should never have been on the table at all.” Indeed, Washington policymakers have long recognized the colossal unwisdom of a unilateral attack and would likely rather contain Iran than give that order. Congress’s rejection would considerably worsen the consequences of the U.S. taking military action on its own to the point that even hawks would not advocate doing it.

Obama is wrong, therefore, about his rationale for propounding the ‘deal-or-war’ refrain, which is that if Iran walks away due to Congress’s disapproval resolution, those who opposed the JCPOA will be able to successfully pressure him into hitting Iran’s nuclear facilities. No one in the administration or the American public would stand for it. Not when the Iranians will have the whole world in their corner, especially if they’re making no movement towards nukes. But even if Iran was found to be weaponizing, the international community might see it as justified–depending on the circumstances leading up to Tehran making that decision–because of Article X of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which states “Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.” As Peter Jenkins notes, “This provision is naturally interpreted as meaning that if a Party feels threatened by another state which is nuclear-armed, it may withdraw in order to defend itself by acquiring nuclear weapons.”

The P5 powers and a host of other nations might even array themselves against any U.S. attack as there have been hints in the past that Russia and China at least would come to Iran’s defense. It would be strongly in the global interest to signal to Washington that a ground invasion (which would eventually have to follow the airstrikes) will not be tolerated so Iran is prevented from being turned into a destabilized mess like Iraq. No wonder Bill O’Reilly thought bombing Iran would mean World War III. Much more likely to occur, though, is that before Iran can produce deliverable warheads the international community will come together and dissuade them with diplomacy, defusing whatever security issue (likely a series of serious provocations from Washington) that is spurring them to obtain nukes.

So if sinking the JCPOA also sinks the most effective military option with it, why are the deal’s opponents putting on this spectacular sham battle? Congress has, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, been so mechanically anti-Iran for so long that, as much as it would like to knuckle under and embrace this deal, it can’t without its own credibility going down the toilet. Then there’s the hay-making for the 2016 presidential campaign. The Republican candidates want to make the Iran deal the centerpiece of the debate about America’s proper role in international affairs. As for Netanyahu, it’s a win-win situation where he uses the fight with the U.S. over the deal (which he knows to be lost) to both count on Democrats being eager to, as Chemi Shalev writes, “mend fences with Jewish voters and donors in advance of the 2016 elections and will be pressing the administration to mollify Netanyahu” and drive a wedge between American Jews and the Democratic party during the campaign.

Obama and Netanyahu Out of Tune Dueling Banjos

What a dull affair the debate surrounding the Iran nuclear deal has been. Since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement was unveiled, criticism of it hasn’t been originative and neither have the Obama administration’s comebacks. The best opponents and supporters alike can do is latch on to what the other side thinks will happen if we accept/reject the deal and claim it for their own. For instance, it will be a “historic mistake” whether Congress does or does not approve the deal. Both sides maintain a nuclear arms race will ensue in the Middle East if the vote doesn’t go their way. President Barack Obama says war will be the ultimate result if his aborning diplomatic achievement isn’t given a chance while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaims “I oppose this deal because I want to prevent war and this deal will bring war.” Both sides desperately need to step their game up because, as it stands now, everybody’s arguments about accepting or rejecting this agreement are wrong.

Obama told Fareed Zakaria last week that Netanyahu “is wrong on this. And I think that I can show that the basic assumptions that he’s made are incorrect.” He is right that Netanyahu is wrong in his criticism but the same can equally be said of the President himself in his defense of the accord—not because the deal won’t do what he says it will do but because he is mistaken about the underlying assumption of needing this particular deal at all. The JCPOA wasn’t necessary to prevent Iran from zooming towards nukes. Obama may say it’s a choice between this deal and “some form of war” with Iran (most likely a non-nuclear Cold War) but there are three further alternatives. One is the much overlooked proposal for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. The zone will be needed anyway later on once certain provisions of the JCPOA expire and Iran’s breakout time gets close to zero. So we could have skipped a lengthy agreement phase and settled future nuclear tensions straightaway.

The second is to find a way to reassure the regime that Iran’s legitimate security interests will be respected. As much as Iran really doesn’t want nukes, they would feel compelled to cross the threshold if things got intolerable security-wise. The obvious solution, then, is for the U.S. to give Iran no cause for alarm by abandoning all thought of regime change and creating a security framework where Washington accepts Iran’s role in the region in return for Tehran putting pressure on the Shi’ite groups it supports to moderate. In short, we ought to revisit the Iranian’s grand bargain offer from 2003 where all of this was on the table. This all-encompassing agreement would have the added advantage of hushing up the opponents who object to the JCPOA because it does not address all the other problems the West has with Iran.

Zbigniew Brzezinski described the third alternative in his book Strategic Vision:

“[I]f it becomes clear that Iran is actually in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons, America could also seek commitments from other nuclear powers to participate in the collective enforcement of a UN resolution to disarm Iran, by compulsion if necessary. But it must be stressed: such enforcement would have to be collective and involve also Russia and China. America can provide a nuclear umbrella for the region by itself, but it should not engage in a solitary military action against Iran or just in cooperation with Israel, for that would plunge America into a wider, again lonely, and eventually self-destructive conflict.”

The prospect of coming under attack by a coalition of world powers if they get caught trying to build nukes would surely be more than enough to deter Iran from doing so. “But what if they don’t get caught?” JCPOA supporters might ask. Current inspections don’t cover every aspect of Iran’s civilian nuclear program (like uranium mines and centrifuge production plants), as the JCPOA does, and so Iran could use those blind-spots to build secret facilities and ‘sneak-out’ towards the bomb. But even if inspectors failed to detect a sneak-out and Iran gets the bomb, a UN resolution committed to Iran’s disarmament would still be useful in getting Iran to give up their newly acquired nukes. To enforce the resolution, the international community would demand the imposition of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. The sheer collective will behind the resolution will make it difficult for Iran and the other nations in the Middle East to resist this directive.

Now let us move on to why Netanyahu and other opponents are wrong to want to scrap the JCPOA because they believe tougher sanctions will lead to a better deal. They may be dismissive of Secretary of State John Kerry when he mocks them for holding out for a “unicorn deal” but they can’t do the same when fellow Iran hawk John Bolton agrees that they are engaging in wishful thinking:

“Some critics of Obama’s plan advocate scuttling the deal and increasing economic sanctions against Iran instead. They are dreaming. Iran and the United States’ negotiating partners have already signed the accords and are straining at their leashes to implement them. There will be no other “better deal.” Arguments about what Obama squandered or surrendered along the way are therefore fruitless. As for sanctions, they were already too weak to prevent Iran’s progress toward the bomb, and they will not be reset now.”

I would suggest both Obama and Netanyahu—and pro- and anti-dealers in general—go back to the drawing board because all the brackish back-and-forth sounds like dueling banjos that are out of tune.