Rejection of the nuclear deal with Iran would not harm U.S. interests
Advocates of the agreement have characterized a congressional vote of disapproval as the opening salvo of the next Middle East war. In reality, a “no” vote may have powerful symbolic value, but it has limited practical impact according to the law. It does not, for example, negate the administration’s vote at the UN Security Council in support of the deal, which sanctified the agreement in international law. Nor does it require the president to enforce U.S.sanctions against Iran with vigor. Its only real meaning is to restrict the president’s authority under the law to suspend nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.
Here’s the catch: By the terms of the nuclear agreement, the president only decides to suspend those sanctions after international inspectors certify that Iran has fulfilled its core requirements. In other words, congressional disapproval has no direct impact on the actions Iran must take under the agreement to shrink its enriched-uranium stockpile, mothball thousands of centrifuges, and deconstruct the core of its Arak plutonium reactor. Most experts believe that process will take six to nine months, or until the spring of 2016.
Why would Iran do all of these things if it can’t count on the United States to suspend sanctions in response? While it’s impossible to predict with certainty how Iranian leaders would react to congressional disapproval of the agreement, I’d argue chances are high that they would follow through on their commitments anyway, because the deal is simply that good for Iran. After Iran fulfills its early obligations, all United Nations and European Union nuclear-related sanctions come to an end. They aren’t just suspended like U.S. sanctions—they are terminated, presenting Iran with the potential for huge financial and political gain.
The “deal or war” thesis propounded by supporters of the agreement suggests that Iran, in the event of U.S. rejection of the deal, would prefer to bypass that financial and political windfall and instead put its nuclear program into high gear, risking an Israeli and American military response. But that volte-face makes little sense, now that Iran has painstakingly built a nuclear program that is on the verge of achieving the once-unthinkable legitimacy that comes with an international accord implicitly affirming Iran’s right to unrestricted enrichment in the future. In such a scenario, Iran would reap an additional benefit in continuing to implement the agreement: The United States, not Iran, would be isolated diplomatically.
Paradoxically, the supporters of the agreement should welcome congressional disapproval. As it stands, the agreement is rejected by most Republican lawmakers and the president has had to resort to arm-twisting and threats to ensure Democratic support. It may come to pass that Obama can sustain his agreement through a parliamentary manipulation called a presidential veto. However, it should concern the White House and its supporters that its controversial agreement rests on no real domestic consensus. It is hard to see how an accord can endure for over a decade when a majority of the American people and their representatives disapprove of it.
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With or without the support of the international community, however, if there is no agreement, then the main restraint on Iranian breakout would have to be U.S. and partner intelligence collection and U.S. readiness, understood by all, to use force if Iran approaches a nuclear weapons capability. While that is stated U.S. policy, albeit expressed indirectly such as "preserve all options," the president has effectively undercut this policy by repeated warnings about inevitable "war" if no agreement is reached. Without an agreement a military confrontation would be more likely, but not inevitable. Of course, a military confrontation with Iran could be costly and risk escalation, but, absent spectacularly bad U.S. decisions, it is unlikely to produce either a U.S. defeat or a "war" in the sense normally used in American political debate -- endless, bloody ground combat by hundreds of thousands of troops as in Iraq or Vietnam. Based on my experience I know how uncertain any resort to force is, but all our security interests are ultimately anchored on willingness to use force, and success doing so.
U.S. economic predominance has been increasingly tested in recent years, with the rise of the Chinese powerhouse and a resurgent Russia advocating alternatives to the dollar. Still, the dollar’s strength over the past year has demonstrated its primacy and underscored its unique status.
“I just don’t think that there’s a connection,” said John Taylor, a Stanford economist who served as the Treasury’s undersecretary for international affairs from 2001 to 2005.
Juan Zarate, a senior White House and Treasury official in the George W. Bush administration, said “it’s a very binary argument being made to sell the deal, and it overstates the risks that we face.” He has raised concerns in recent years that the overuse of sanctions could over the long run degrade the dollar’s elite status, but he says in the current context, the administration’s argument isn’t credible.
Moreover, Mr. Zarate said the argument is “undermining the power of the dollar itself at a time when it’s actually the strongest currency in the world, and you’re undercutting the effect of sanctions.”
Others said the administration’s concern could be valid but was possibly overstated.
“It’s a reasonable debating point…but it’s probably one of the weaker aspects,” said Edwin “Ted” Truman, a longtime international finance official at the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department.
If a bipartisan supermajority does in fact begin to cohere in criticism of the undeniable loopholes and inadequacies of the agreement, it is likely the administration will adjust its position. Provisions that today are impossible to change will become subject to renegotiation and clarification.
The best chance for a better deal, in other words, is overwhelming bipartisan pressure from Capitol Hill about the need for one, rather than acquiescencing to the Obama administration’s claim that this is the best agreement possible because Iran will go no further.
That conclusion overlooks two truths: First, the Iranians are historically capable of adjusting positions they have claimed were immovable to new political realities, and, second, Iran, because of its depleted economy, needs an agreement much more than we do. Congress has the power now to act on these two realities.
This is an initiative, moreover, that many of our friends and partners are likely to welcome. Certainly the countries most affected by the deal — Israel and the Gulf Arab states — have made no secret of their dismay at the concessions granted to the Iranians in the quest for a settlement. Reportedly, even some of our European allies may not be wholly displeased by some congressional push-back — even if not all of them admit so publicly.
The key point is that a “no” vote on the Iran deal has little practical impact until next year. Between now and then, such a vote buys time, adding up to nine months to the strategic clock. If, before the vote, Obama refuses to adopt a comprehensive set of remedial measures that improves the deal, then a resounding vote of disapproval gives the president additional time to take such action and then ask Congress to endorse his new-and-improved proposal.
Chastened by a stinging congressional defeat in September—one that would include a powerful rebuke by substantial members of his own party—the president might be more willing to correct the flaws in the deal than he is today. That would surely be a more responsible and statesmanlike approach than purposefully circumventing the will of Congress through executive action that effectively lifts sanctions—an alternative the president might consider if he is hell-bent on implementing the agreement.
Ray Takeyh argues that the Iran nuclear deal can safely be revised as many other international agreements have been done before and that doing so is in the best interest of proponents of the deal as it "is hard to see how an accord can endure for over a decade when a majority of the American people and their representatives disapprove of it."
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Robert Satloff argues that U.S. rejection of the nuclear deal would not immediately lead to a collapse of the agreement as Iran is still bound to complete its required dismantling of the program. This would add another 9 months to the calendar, during which the U.S. could work to improve the deal.
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