A week after President Barack Obama passionately defended the Iran deal in a speech at American University, the political ripples keep spreading.
Many commentators have complained about Obama’s tough tone and his equation of Republican opponents of the deal with Iranian hardliners who chant “Death to America” at staged government rallies. Others dispute the president’s contention that those who oppose the Iran agreement include the same people who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and thus would favor military action against Iran.
Anger at Obama’s comments - which appear aimed at shoring up his Democratic base for a likely fight to hold the line against Congressional disapproval of the deal - is not an excuse for silence among Republicans who support the Iran agreement.
There are a number of Republican moderates, including former senior officials in past administrations, who have indicated privately that they prefer the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to no deal. There are also worries about the blow to U.S. credibility and future diplomacy if Congress were to vote the agreement down by a veto-proof majority.
These individuals have so far declined to speak out publicly.
Senators such as Jeff Flake of Arizona have appeared open to the administration’s case, and should be willing to cast a vote of conscience, not of political expediency. Rand Paul of Kentucky has warned of the dangers of military action against Iran, but has come out against the deal in his flagging efforts to be a viable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Others are keeping quiet because they hope to work for a prospective Republican president or maintain influence with the campaigns. Still, it would be useful to hear from pragmatic past officials such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former National Security Advisers Stephen Hadley and Brent Scowcroft.
Whatever one may think of Obama’s tactics, the debate over the Iran agreement is among the most consequential for U.S. foreign policy since the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Powell, to his subsequent regret, did not act more forcefully in 2003 to oppose the invasion even though he had grave misgivings about its wisdom. He did break with his party to endorse Obama for the presidency in 2008. Why doesn’t he speak up now?
A Powell assistant told this reporter that “he’s examining it and hasn’t said anything public yet.”
Administration officials have made a persuasive case that the JCPOA will block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon for at least 15 years. A key constraint is the requirement that Iran not possess more than 300 kilograms of low-enriched uranium throughout that period. That is a quarter of what would be required - if further enriched to weapons grade - to build a single nuclear weapon. Without sufficient fissile material, Iran cannot make a bomb.
Iran has also agreed to allow monitoring of its uranium mines, mills and conversion facilities for 25 years. To cheat successfully on the deal, it would have to build a covert, parallel uranium supply chain, something experts regard as impossible with the eyes of not only the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) but those of all the world’s major intelligence services on Iran.
There is no realistic alternative to the accord that provides assurances against a nuclear weapon in Iran for such a prolonged period. Military strikes on Iran’s facilities would set back the program at most for a few years, and in the process, provide Iran with an excuse to actually develop nuclear weapons to deter further attacks.
To walk away from the agreement now - it already has the force of international law - would also do grave damage to U.S. trustworthiness, undermine the credibility of this and future administrations and likely crack the multilateral sanctions regime against Iran.
This week, Gary Samore, a non-proliferation expert at Harvard who quit as president of an organization opposed to the Iran deal, was quoted in The New York Times as saying that the JCPOA buys at least “a couple of years, and if Iran cheats or reneges we will be in an even better position to double down on sanctions or, if necessary, use military force... “If I knew for certain that in five years they would cheat or renege, I’d still take the deal.”
Nuclear experts and former U.S. military officers have signed open letters supporting the agreement. The scientists include preeminent U.S. nuclear physicists such as Richard Garwin, who helped design the first hydrogen bomb. And among the former officers is retired Navy Rear Adm. Harold L. Robinson, a rabbi, former Navy chaplain and self-described “lifelong Zionist.”
Already there is talk in some circles about future legislation to help implement the deal and address critics’ calls for a comprehensive U.S. strategy to deal with Iran in its non-nuclear dimensions, including its support for Hezbollah and other Shiite militants in Arab countries.
But before the administration can engage on this topic, it needs to get the JCPOA past Congress. Pique at the president or other partisan considerations should not preclude putting U.S. national security first.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.
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