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Iran Deal Looks Safe from Lawmakers’ Attack for Now

Washington's foreign policy elites have generally welcomed the interim agreement on Iran's nuclear enrichment program, leaving little space for congressional hawks to advance new sanctions that could tank negotiations.

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Inter Press Service

The groundbreaking deal on Iran’s nuclear programme appears safe from any serious attack by the strongly pro-Israel U.S. Congress, at least for the balance of 2013.

Despite continuing grumblings about the first-phase agreement between Tehran and the so-called P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, and Britain) by Republicans and a couple of key Democrats, the chances that lawmakers will enact new sanctions against Iran before the year’s end – as had been strongly urged by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters in Washington – seem to have evaporated.

Tehran has made clear that any new sanctions legislation – even if its implementation would take effect only after the expiration of the six-month deal — would not only violate the terms of the agreement, but almost certainly derail the most promising diplomatic efforts in a decade to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme does not result in its acquisition of a weapon.

“If we pass sanctions now, even with a deferred trigger which has been discussed, the Iranians, and likely our international partners, will see us as having negotiated in bad faith,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday.

The threat of Congressional action has receded amidst the consolidation of a virtual consensus among the foreign policy elite that the deal negotiated by, among others, Secretary of State John Kerry, is a good one, as well as its endorsement by several key Democrats, notably the chairs of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein, respectively.

In addition, a series of polls conducted both just before and after the Nov. 24 deal was concluded has shown strong public support for the diplomatic route, particularly if the most likely alternative was military action.

In the run-up to the last negotiation, majorities of 64 and 56 percent of respondents told CNN and Washington Post polls, respectively, that they would support an agreement in which some economic sanctions against Iran would be lifted in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programme that would make it harder to build a bomb. Just after the accord was reached, a Reuters/IPSOS poll found that respondents favoured the deal by a two-to-one margin (44-22 percent).

far more detailed survey released by Americans United for Change and conducted by a highly regarded political polling firm, Hart Research Associates, also found strong backing (57 percent) among likely voters who had heard at least a little about the deal.

When respondents were informed about the accord’s basic terms – including the neutralisation of Iran’s stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium, curbs on its 3.5 percent stockpile, and enhanced international inspections in exchange for the easing of some sanctions — support rose to 63 percent overall.

Moreover, that support crossed partisan and ideological lines: pluralities approaching 50 percent of self-described Republicans, “conservatives”, and “very strong supporters of Israel” (who constituted nearly a third of the sample), said they favoured the terms as depicted in the survey.

More than two-thirds (68 percent) agreed with the proposition that Congress should not take any action that would block the accord or jeopardise negotiations for a permanent settlement, while only 21 percent favoured additional sanctions legislation now even if it would break the agreement or jeopardise the negotiations.

“Underlying much of this is Americans’ desire to avoid getting involved in another war in the Middle East,” noted Geoffrey Garin, Hart’s president and a top Democratic pollster. “There’s great scepticism about using military force against Iran.”

Despite Netanyahu’s continuing denunciations of the Nov. 24 accord as a “bad agreement” and “historic mistake”, results such as these appear to have persuaded mainstream institutions of the Israel lobby, which have been avidly courted by the White House, not to go all-out for the immediate enactment of new sanctions legislation.

As noted by ‘The Forward’, the nation’s largest-circulation Jewish newspaper that endorsed the deal “as a risk well worth taking,” even the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) appears more focused now on the terms of a final agreement, even as its echoes Netanyahu’s critique and urges Congress to enact “prospective sanctions” as soon as possible.

“AIPAC is now defining its red line as insisting that the United States ‘deny Tehran a nuclear weapons capability’ – a vague term that falls short of Israel’s demand for ‘zero enrichment’ of uranium by Iran for its nuclear production,” according to the newspaper’s well-connected diplomatic correspondent, Nathan Guttman.

Indeed, even as Netanyahu continued to assail the agreement, he quietly sent a delegation headed by his national security adviser to Washington for meetings with the Obama administration focused on what specific limits can be placed on Iran’s nuclear programme in upcoming negotiations. Officially, Israel has insisted that virtually the entire programme, including and especially Iran’s uranium enrichment, be completely dismantled – a goal which Washington believes cannot be achieved.

Meanwhile, the elite consensus in favour of the current deal and the negotiation process appears to be consolidating.

An informal poll of more than 100 “National Security Insiders” published by the influential ‘National Journal’ found that more than 75 percent considered it a “good deal”, although only 58 percent expressed confidence that the negotiations would end with a favourable settlement.

On Tuesday, nine former top-ranking foreign-service officers, including six ambassadors to Israel, released a letter sent to members of key national-security committees in Congress praising the Geneva accord.

“More than any other option, a diplomatic breakthrough on this issue will help ensure Israel’s security and remove the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the region generally and Israel specifically,” the group, which included four former undersecretaries who served in Republican administrations, wrote.

The letter followed another signed by former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski and subsequently endorsed by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright on the eve of the Geneva talks opposing additional sanctions.

Two Republican heavyweights, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, also published an op-ed in the neo-conservative Wall Street Journal this week which, while negative and sceptical in tone, did not urge new sanctions or an end to negotiations. It called instead for the administration to insisting as part of any final accord on “Iran dismantling or mothballing a strategically significant portion of its nuclear infrastructure.”

“We should be open to the possibility of purs(u)ing an agenda of long-term cooperation” with Tehran, it also noted.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

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