The Democratic challenge: National interests vs. politics on the Iran deal

As Congress heads home for the August recess, members can anticipate hearing from constituents, both vehemently in favor and against the controversial Iran nuclear deal.

The White House (photo credit: REUTERS)
The White House
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“I strongly believe the world could and should have a better deal than that set forth in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which I will therefore oppose...I believe the inspections procedures...are flawed...The immediate sanctions relief provided Iran in the deal would incentivize the funding of terrorism...the deal before us now is simply too dangerous for the American people...I have every confidence a better deal can be realized.” – Democratic Congresswomen Grace Meng
As Congress heads home for the August recess, members can anticipate hearing from constituents, both vehemently in favor and against the controversial Iran nuclear deal.
For most Republican and some Democratic members of Congress, the weakness of the final deal was no surprise as the interim agreement of November 2013, and the framework agreement of April 2015 had already crossed all of President Barack Obama’s stated red lines, as well as their own.
But for Democrats torn between their constitutional obligation to weigh in on a major foreign policy decision with profound consequences for future generations, and their presumed duty to support the foreign policy legacy of their standard bearer, the choice is much more complex. Threats of retribution by fellow Democrats if they vote against this deal are not just a speculation, but are a reality.
Senate Whip Dick Durbin and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both immediately endorsed the deal without taking time to even seem to consider it carefully. It seems they would have endorsed almost anything the president proposed, out of sheer party loyalty.
Those in favor of the deal seem comfortable with the outsourcing of American foreign policy to the international community.
They didn’t object when the president sent the agreement to the UN Security Council before the promised Congressional vote, betraying a clear understanding negotiated between the president and Republican Foreign Policy Chair Senator Corker, and Democratic ranking member Senator Cardin that he would not do that.
Undecided members of Congress will have to grapple with the fact that they will be forced to make their decision knowing that the full agreement and concessions given to Iran are being concealed from them.
There are “confidential agreements” between the IAEA and Iran that the administration admits incomprehensibly not to know the details of. This is essential because it directly deals with the past and current military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program. How can we monitor the deal if we don’t know what is the starting point? The president promised “unprecedented verification,” but the administration has refused to even acknowledge whether there are additional side deals between the US and Iran, which it won’t reveal to Congress. Do you remember the heady days of 2009 when the president said, “We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency”? American national security interests will be profoundly affected by the consequences of this deal for years to come. For Israel, this is an existential issue.
So when the president and Secretary of State John Kerry say they know better than the Israeli government that this agreement is in Israeli interests, it truly strains credulity. An overwhelming consensus of Israelis of both the Left and Right think this deal is a bad one.
This week I attended an emergency meeting of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, where I heard an analysis of the deal by Dore Gold, the Foreign Ministry director general, and Amos Yadlin, former head of military intelligence and head of INSS (the Institute of National Security Studies), Israel’s leading center-left security think tank.
From both ends of the political spectrum they are in accord on the Iran deal, both are decidedly against it. General Yadlin, who would have been defense minister if the Left had prevailed in the last election, traveled to America to tell Congress that there is a strong consensus across the political spectrum in Israel against this deal. As General Yadlin said, “My parameters for a good deal were crossed...
this deal is much more dangerous than no deal.” Despite this, the pro-deal American Jewish Left continues to assert that the Israeli Left is strongly in favor of the deal, and has even falsely claimed that General Yadlin himself is a supporter of the deal.
Both men made unambiguous statements that in the long run this deal guarantees an Iranian nuclear bomb, with the blessings of the world. Yadlin said the worst thing that can happen would be for Iran to keep to the letter of the deal, as this will guarantee its ability to have a bomb. He said that if Congress overrides the deal, Iran would likely adhere to the deal to allow the international sanctions against Iran to continue to collapse. Yadlin estimates that Iran will receive a half a trillion dollars in sanctions relief over the next five years, which could be used largely for conventional weaponization, nuclear development and terrorism.
For those undecided members of Congress, who take their responsibility to defend the republic as their primary decision- making compass, there will be much to think about in the next six weeks. I have read the 159 pages of the deal and have learned a lot beyond the talking points of both parties.
We must hope Congress and their foreign policy experts independently read it with an open mind. But how many members will simply read the administration and J Street talking points, and use them to defend the deal? Lets hope not many, for America’s sake.
In the short term, there are some advantages to this deal, although the disadvantages still outweigh them. The advantages are some more oversight, which relies too heavily on Iranian compliance, a decrease in the stockpile of enriched uranium and mothballing of some older centrifuges.
The premise of the president’s concessions rests on the hope that the Iranian people will be able, during the years of the deal, to force their repressive government to moderate its behavior. So how can one explain the logic of throwing a financial lifeline of hundreds of billions of dollars to the very terrorist regime you want to weaken? Even if the majority of Iranians are potentially pro-American and want to join the international community, authoritarian regimes are by nature small groups of thugs who detain, torture and repress their own citizens. This deal enables the regime to continue its hold onto power and abuse its citizens.
President Obama’s red line before November 2013 was to dismantle the Iranian nuclear program, the illicitly built nuclear sites of Fordow and Natanz, and the plutonium site of Arak. All have been crossed.
This doesn’t even count the promise that the deal would only be about nuclear issues.
The agreement shockingly gives Iran conventional weapons relief, advanced R&D on the next generation of centrifuges and the ability to buy and sell ballistic missiles in eight years.
Most egregious is that this treaty masquerades as an executive agreement, yet is likely to be the most consequential foreign policy decision for Congress in the first half of the 21st century.
Another talking point of those in favor of the deal is that the international community will abandon American sanctions if Congress overrides the president’s veto. This is not necessarily true. As far as other nations abandoning America, the binary choice to offer them is to choose between trading with Iran, a third rate economy that is the world’s largest supporter of terrorism, or continue trading with the unipolar superpower with the world’s largest consumer market. With additional congressional legislation, this can easily come true.
Here is another alternative to this misguided deal. The president’s defenders repeatedly claim alternatives to this deal do not exist. Not true.
So will Democrats and Republicans follow the thoughtful and brave choice that Democratic Congresswomen Grace Meng made in choosing American national security interests over politics? Lets hope that our public servants remember that their allegiance is first to our country, not to their party.
And as for those concerned about Israel’s future, they should remember the words of Harvard scholar Ruth Wisse: “This is the first time the US will have deliberately entered into a pact with a country committed to annihilating another people – a pact that doesn’t even require formal repudiation of the country’s genocidal aims.”
The author is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), and a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post. MEPIN is a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders. He regularly briefs members of Congress on issues related to the Middle East.