BY: Samuel R. Berger
There is a notion cultivated by opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement, attractive to members of Congress under intense pressure to vote no, that congressional rejection of the agreement will enable U.S. negotiators to reach a better deal. The expectation is, that with a further turn of the screws, we can pressure the Iranians to give more and/or we give less. But it can’t happen.
The agreement needs to be judged on its merits and the consequences of rejecting it need to be confronted without the illusion that there will be another, easier chance. Opponents cannot escape through a trapped door marked “later.” There is no later, this is the end of the line. Rejection fundamentally shifts the balance of power on Iran from the president to the Congress in a way that makes a future agreement virtually impossible to achieve. Voting no deprives this president, or a future president, of bargaining power over the Iranians. It isolates us in the world. And it allows Iran to move further toward a nuclear weapon, presenting the United States and Israel with terrible choices.
The Iran nuclear deal deserves to be supported on its merits. It is not without risks and it does not solve the Iran threat in the region. But it will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. The appropriate comparison is not increasing Iran’s “breakout time” from three months to twelve months. It is three months today as opposed to twelve months 15 years from now—unless in the interim Iran decides—having cut its stockpiles, dismantled its centrifuges, and closed or altered its nuclear fuel making facilities—to defy the international community by undertaking what almost certainly would be a visible “mad dash” to the bomb.
It will be virtually impossible for Iran to cheat in a strategically significant way. Every step of its program will be monitored live by international inspectors on the ground, cameras, seals, satellites and every other modern surveillance device known to man. The risk to Iran of any significant cheating would be to undo any refurbishment of its perception in the world which they seem so anxious to achieve, and create the need for a sudden new narrative for its people.
If Iran refuses to give us access to a suspicious site, despite wild arithmetic by some critics, the deal is adequate if we have the steadfastness to enforce it. The United States, by ourselves, can trigger within 24 days a UN Security Council resolution to reimpose sanctions—“in whole or in part”—and can’t be blocked by the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians—even the Europeans. That time period can be used quite effectively to build pressure on Iran to open the site. If we are skittish about invoking this the first time, we should not be the second time, or the third when the pattern of deception clear.
Finally, it is important to be just as clear about what the agreement will not do. It will not stop Iran from supporting Bashar Al Assad and Hezbollah in Syria, sponsoring terrorist groups and other efforts that threaten Israel, and exploiting instability in the region to advance its ambitions for regional influence. Iran’s revolutionary underpinnings run deep and we should not expect them to change because of this agreement. But that is a reason to support the agreement, not oppose it. Iran’s position in each of the conflicts it seeks to exploit will be stronger if Iran has a viable nuclear capability. It will be emboldened further and alter the regional balance.
There are reasonable questions that the Obama administration needs to answer. Questioning the agreement is not an act of war-mongering. But one “safe harbor” for members who see the benefits, are concerned about the downsides, and are seeking a strategic path to “no” is an illusion: that somehow—through the continuing stress of sanctions on the Iranian people or otherwise—this agreement will come around again a second time in better form. Those who vote “no” need to own the likely consequences of voting no.
The reason goes to heart of the matter before the Congress. The disapproval resolution that it will consider by September 17 will strip the president of the authority to waive or suspend any congressional sanctions against Iran, including those that were waived as part of the interim agreement that essentially froze Iran’s nuclear program during the negotiations. Thereafter, it will take some affirmative act of the Congress to give the president authority once again to lift sanctions. Of course, it was the prospect of such sanctions relief that brought Iran to the negotiating table and that was our bargaining leverage to secure concessions from Iran.
It is virtually impossible to conceive of this Congress—or any Congress in the foreseeable future—giving this president, or a future president, authority to lift or suspend sanctions on Iran without some form of congressional approval. Such a new grant of authority to the president would require, under today’s circumstances, a filibuster-proof, bipartisan affirming majority in both Houses. There is no prospect of gaining 60 votes in the Senate to give the president authority to waive any sanctions on Iran. Rejecting the deal—defeating it in both the Senate and the House and overriding a likely presidential veto—rather than enhancing the president’s negotiating leverage, will eviscerate it.
Consider the consequences of this outcome.
First, the president would lose the bargaining leverage he has to get a better deal from Iran. He can no longer promise to lift sanctions, which is what brought them to the negotiating table; the best he can give is a promissory note go back to Congress and seek a super-majority for sanctions relief—this time requiring 60 votes in the Senate. The Iranians will understand that is meaningless.
Second, the existing sanctions regime will quickly erode, if not unravel, and it is hard to imagine any other country joining us in new sanctions. We need to remember that the United States has no “skin in the game” on sanctions; we haven’t traded with Iran in decades. The cost of sanctions is borne—in addition to the Iranians—by countries and companies around the world who have given up the Iranian market. In addition to the Europeans, we’ve convinced those with less of a stake in the Iranian nuclear program—the South Koreans, the Indians, the Japanese, the Chinese—to stop buying Iranian oil and selling goods into the Iranian market. They have never been happy with this but acceded to U.S. pressure and diplomacy in order to give us leverage to get Iran to the table and constrain its nuclear program.
Will the South Koreans continue to block Samsung, or the Japanese Toyota after the Iranians not only came to the table but negotiated a nuclear agreement that entire world—from China and Russia to Europe and the United States president—believes is a good one and only the United States Congress does not? By the same token, how sustainable would US unilateral sanctions be that punish foreign companies for trading with Iran? We would be proceeding against companies for violating US sanctions that most of the world would not think were justified.
In this scenario, the Iranians will face two possible paths. If President Rouhani can persuade Ayatollah Khamenei and others that it is the smartest course, Iran could play the “victim.” Rouhani could emphasize to the world the unprecedented constraints and transparency Iran had accepted and suggest that, even though the United States had rejected the proposed deal, for now it would move forward to implement—on its terms and timeline. The UN sanctions will end; there will be enormous pressure on the Europeans to lift their sanctions in order to keep the Iranians on track with some degree of compliance rather than lose all the benefits of the agreement. The pressure of sanctions will recede. Iran will get back its frozen assets, with no strings attached. The extent of their “compliance” will be totally voluntary; it’s hard to imagine, for example, the Europeans —without the U.S. under these circumstances—being terribly aggressive about access to suspect sites over Iranian objections. If Iran after a time begins to encroach on some of the limitations in the proposed agreement—on R&D, centrifuges or otherwise—it will be confounding to accuse it of “cheating” on an agreement that is no longer binding.
Alternatively, a rejection could be seized upon by the hard-liners to reassert their dominance over the advocates of a dangerous “third way” for Iran. The internal dynamics in Iran—ultimately driven by the opaque Supreme Leader—could tack in a more nationalistic direction, with even Rouhani needing to secure his legitimacy. This does not mean Iran would suddenly “race to the bomb.” But it easily could mean that it renounces any obligations under this agreement or the earlier interim agreement, restarts its nuclear program from where it was before negotiations began two years ago and resumes adding centrifuges and enriching fuel—all the while castigating the United States for turning its back on a historic negotiated agreement.
If they move along this harder line path, it leaves Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a horrible position. Before these negotiations began, Netanyahu stood before the United Nations General Assembly and drew a bright red line across a large drawing of a ticking time bomb. Then and since, he has said that the line represented the point at which Iran was 90 percent of the way to having enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon—just months or possibly weeks away—a result he would never let happen. If, having worked so hard to defeat the Iran deal in the U.S. Congress, he succeeds in doing so—and that leads not to a better agreement but to no agreement, an erosion of sanctions, and Iran resuming its nuclear program and moving inexorably to his red line—he is faced with a terrible choice. Either he stands by and watches Iran move across his red line or he launches a military attack against Iran’s nuclear program that, no matter how successful, is seen by the world as a war that could have been avoided.
There is, of course, an alternative to these dark scenarios. We can use the fifteen years of constraints in this agreement to pursue a course of vigorous engagement in the region, strengthening the range of capabilities our allies need to deter and turn back Iran, stabilize some of the conflicts that roil the region, and make clear to the world that Israel’s security is America’s security.
Senators and congressmen are taking this vote very seriously. But as they do so, they need to recognize that no means no—not no for now, but no for exerting some control over Iran’s nuclear program.
Samuel R. Berger is the former White House national security advisor and current co-chair of Albright Stonebridge Group.