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.