On July 14th the Obama Administration announced that an agreement (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) had been reached with the Iranians regarding their nuclear programme. It was sold heavily by Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama as a good deal that will constrain Iran’s nuclear ambition and bring ‘peace in our time’. The deal was quickly ratified by the UN Security Council but faced a rockier road in the US Congress.
The US Constitution (Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2) states that all foreign treaties must be ratified by a 2/3rds majority of the Senate. With Republican control of the Senate, that would have been a hard ask. Obama decided to deal with the Iranian agreement the same way as he dealt with his immigration reform, do an end run around Congress where both Houses are controlled by his opponents. Obama announced that the Iranian agreement would be promulgated by Executive Order only. His Administration can also unilaterally refuse to enforce the sanctions without Congressional approval; all else to do with the deal does not have the force of a formal treaty which means that an incoming new President in January 2017 can merely rescind the order and the US side of the deal would collapse.
To overcome the legitimate objection that this hugely important agreement was going to be rammed through bypassing the usual constitutional treaty ratification process and at least give the impression of SOME consultation with the Senate, Obama agreed to submit the JCPOA to a process negotiated with both parties in the Senate. The agreed upon process was passed into law called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, often called in the US the Corker – Menendez – Cardin law (after the Republican and Democrat senators who sponsored the bill). The Senate would get the chance to review the agreement but the Constitutional approval process was turned on its head stating that the agreement would be deemed to be approved by Congress unless effectively 2/3rds of the Senate vote against it.
For the opponents of the agreement, the Corker law erected a very high barrier because of the other Senate procedures and Constitutional checks and balances. In order for the Senate to even pass a Motion of Disapproval, opponents must first muster 60 Senate votes to overcome the Minority Democrats likely filibuster. Republicans would need to be unified and get 6 Democrat Senators to defect to get the 60 Senate votes needed to defeat a filibuster which would send the Motion to President Obama for his signature. Obama has already announced he would veto it and to override a Presidential veto, you need a 2/3rds majority in both Houses of Congress. Whilst a number of high profile Democrat senators announced their opposition to the deal (including likely new Democrat Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York), last week Obama secured the support of the 34th Senator in favour of the deal thus ensuring his veto would be sustained in the Senate. Today (Friday 11 September) the House voted 269 to 162 to reject the deal, a margin of 107 which included 25 Democrat defections. However Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat House Minority Leader, says she has at least 150 Democrats who will vote against a veto override meaning the House would fall short of a veto.
On Tuesday 8 September, Administration officials announced that 41 Democrat Senators had announced support for the deal making it possible for Senate Democrats to block via filibuster the Motion of Disapproval obviating even the need for President Obama’s veto. As of right now, Republicans are toying with a series of amendments to the agreement that encapsulate the most egregious and unpopular aspects to force Senate and House Democrats into a series of embarrassing votes in favour of the worst aspects of the deal. This tactic worked a few months ago with a child trafficking bill that Democrats tried to add abortion funding amendments to and then tried to filibuster the whole law. In the end, the threat of filibuster was withdrawn. But even if the GOP succeed in having the Senate Democrats withdraw their filibuster of the Motion of Disapproval enabling it to pass, Obama will still veto it.
It is important to note that the JCPOA is very unpopular amongst the US voting public. All reputable independent polls conducted by the large polling companies (as opposed to pro deal lobby group polls) point to an almost 2:1 opposition to the deal with a recent Pew poll putting support for the deal at barely 21%. This post examines the reasons for this opposition and why, in my opinion, it is a bad deal.
Iran is not a trustworthy player
Since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the ascension to power of the Islamic mullahs, Iran has conducted numerous of acts of aggression against enemies of its Islamic fundamentalist ideals beginning of course with the 444 day captivity of all but six of the staff of the US Embassy in Tehran.
Iran has been an aggressive funder of, and provider of weapons for, Islamic terror groups across the Middle East including Hezbollah in Lebanon (who provoked a war with Israel in 2006, who massacred 241 US Marines in 1982 and assassinated numerous Druze and Christian politicians in Lebanon), Hamas in Gaza (whose indiscriminate shooting of rockets into Israel has led to three Gaza wars with Israel), Houthi rebels in Yemen (recently overthrowing the Yemeni government) and a number of attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets around the globe with the most devastating attacks being in Argentina.
Iran engaged in an 8 year long war with Iraq (then seen more as a US proxy) with overall casualties topping 1 million. After the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Quds forces acted to foment Shia on Sunni sectarian violence in Iraq that was not quelled until the Petraeus led surge of US troops in 2007.
Iran cannot be considered as anything other than an extremist repressive theocracy. There are no free elections, no trade unions, no free press, an extensive and brutal secret police to stamp out opposition, woman are subservient as Islamic laws that treat them as second class citizens are enforced and homosexuals are routinely beaten, hung or thrown from high buildings [correction: Iran has hung over 4,000 gays since 1979 according to gar rights groups – throwing gays from buildings is a hallmark of ISIS].
The whole purpose of the JCPOA arose from the long efforts of the Iranians to build a nuclear weapons capability. The entire sanctions regime that was under review was imposed on Iran because it continued to develop this capability in spite of UN Security Council resolutions and the original opposition of the US and its allies.
Disappearing red lines
The US entered these talks with a number of so-called red or bottom lines. As the negotiations wore on in Geneva, the US progressively caved on each red line:
* The closing down and dismantling of the underground facility at Fordow. Now Fordow can continue to operate with nothing more than ineffectual Russian oversight.
* Inspections were initially going to be “anywhere – anytime”. These have been negotiated away to a farcical regime that gives the Iranians the ability to effectively police themselves.
Toothless inspections regime
The Bush Administration’s sanctions, its action to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq then the IAEA’s (International Atomic Energy Agency – the UN’s nuclear inspection agency) inspections regime in Libya effectively brought an end to Muammar Gaddafi’s nuclear ambitions. Here was a peaceful precedent as to how to snuff out of a nascent nuclear weapons programme. But for it to work, any inspections regime must have teeth. With regards to inspections, there are three types of nuclear sites in Iran:
1st – Known nuclear sites. Policing of these sites will be more rigorous under the JCPOA. For this reason, the Iranians will migrate the weaponisation programme from these heavily policed sites (that are the most talked about) to secondary sites. These known sites are where the Iranians will very publicly reduce the numbers of centrifuges to give the impression of freezing their nuclear programme.
2nd – Secondary suspicious sites. It is activity at these sites where the scope for Iranian flouting of the JCPOA will first occur. The regime for inspecting these sites is frankly pathetic. The IAEA, the US and allies have long suspected the facility at Parchin to be a nuclear weapons development site. But in a secret side deal between the Iranians and the IAEA (that the Obama Administration refuses to show to Congress), the Iranians are allowed to monitor themselves at Parchin. This side agreement specifically makes Parchin off limits to US inspectors. No wonder Kerry and Obama wanted to keep Congress from seeing it.
3rd – Unknown sites. The Iranians will cheat the most at small unknown sites. The inspections regime makes finding suspicious activity at these sites all but impossible. If suspicion arises, the IAEA must first provide evidence to a P5 + EU committee which must approve of inspections (this will take months and the Russians and Chinese will delay and object) and only if the committee agrees, THEN the Iranians will be given 24 days warning of a formal inspection; enough time to clean up any nuclear material despite claims of technology to find even cleaned up sites. According to former IAEA inspector Ari Knownen, the chance of catching Iranian breaches of the JCPOA at these sites is zero.
JCPOA merely attempts to freeze capability not dismantle it
The Agreement makes no genuine attempt at dismantling Iran’s nuclear bomb development. It temporarily forces Iran to give up only SOME of its infrastructure for 10 years only to give it back after 10 years. The best example of this is the Arak Heavy Water facility. Heavy water only has ONE use – inside a nuclear bomb. Furthermore, there is no evidence of any extensive civilian nuclear power infrastructure (the claimed purpose of the nuclear programme).
Has the Iranian regime been required to halt research and development of the faster centrifuges that will enable it to break out to a bomb more rapidly than is the case right now? Answer: No. The deal specifically legitimizes ongoing R&D under certain eroding limitations. Iran can commence testing on the fast IR-8 single centrifuge machines as soon as the deal goes into effect and can commence testing on an additional thirty IR 6 and IR 8 centrifuges in 8½ years’ time enabling it to race to the bomb even faster.
Snap back provisions weak and ineffectual
Assuming that the IAEA IS able to detect Iranian breaches of the JCPOA what then? The entire sanctions infrastructure will have been shredded with almost no ability to effectively re-implement them for any Iranian bad behaviour. The so-called snap back provisions are far from that. It took many years to set in motion the sanctions. Whilst the US Congress could quickly re-impose restrictions on the flow of funds through US banks, without buy-in from the EU countries and Russia and China (two countries who opposed sanctions in the first place and sought ways to circumvent them), there would not be nearly the same deleterious effect on the Iranian economy from what the JCPOA proposes would happen in the unlikely event that Iranian subterfuge is caught by the severely weakened inspections regime that Obama’s people caved on.
‘Signing bonus’ of $100 billion in sanctions relief + bonuses Iran never asked for
The agreement gradually lifts the sanctions that had progressively become quite draconian and had severely constrained Iranian economic activity. Indeed the sanctions can be credited for bringing Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. The JCPOA provides for a massive $100 billion shot in the arm to the regime in the form of front end sanctions relief – a so-called signing bonus. The Iranians would like to have the west believe that this money will be spent on domestic improvements and infrastructure. A short examination of Iranian foreign policy tells us that plenty of this money will be spent by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (the elite fanatical well trained and armed special force that is Iran’s primary method of exporting terror) to further arm Iran’s Shi’ite proxies in Lebanon, the West Bank, Yemen and Gaza. Where else does Hezbollah get its huge arsenal of rockets to fire into Israel and Hamas to build its terror tunnels and its own arsenal of Israel bound rockets? The IRG will also continue to prop up the Assad regime in Syria and its own vicious civil war with ISIS.
The JCPOA will effectively fund a new round of Iranian sponsored terror in the Middle East further corrupting any hope of a proper democracy in Lebanon, any peace in Syria and significantly increasing the likelihood of Hamas and/or Hezbollah provoking another war with Israel.
Obama was so desperate to do the deal that Iran got other bonuses it didn’t even initially ask for. First, it got the P5 to lift the ban on conventional weapons. This means that the signing bonus money can be spent on perfecting medium to long range conventional missiles that can threaten not just Israel but Europe (and beyond) as well. And you can plan on any accelerated development of Iranian missile delivery of conventional warheads to have cross over applicability to its parallel pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Second, Iran got a guarantee from sabotage of its nuclear programme. It’s not sufficient that the US gave away its “anywhere anytime” inspections goal, the agreement requires the P5 to protect the arrangement from external manipulation. Quite what that will mean in reality is hard to specify because the agreement is silent on how this obligation would be fulfilled. Will for instance the US be now required to prevent Israel from sabotaging Iranian nuclear facilities (like the joint US-Israeli Suxtnet virus that set back Iran’s programme several years)? How far would the US go in this matter? All the way to militarily preventing an Israeli strike?
But don’t the P5 and a lot of US and Israeli former military and intelligence staff support the JCPOA?
Britain will do whatever Obama asks. Germany wants to appear to be all in for peace meanwhile France and China are chomping at the bit to do business with Iran (indeed both countries have been at the forefront of sanctions circumvention) and as for Russia, they want to increase their trade and influence in the region and care nothing for the fate of Israel.
A war of words has erupted in the US between different groups of retired military and intelligence officers. In terms of the sheer number and quality, the signatories of those opposed to the deal far outweigh the numbers and previous rank/experience of those who support the deal.
The same is even truer in Israel. The left leaning western media are anxious to appease Iran (as they were to appease Hitler in hailing Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement as a breakthrough) and have found a small handful of retired Israeli intelligence officers who support the deal. Israeli politics is fiercely partisan with vocal proponents of the left and right and their supporting newspapers and other media. Unique in this country of constant, loud even brutal partisan political confrontation is the unanimity among the major Israeli political parties especially now from the left leaning Zionist Union coalition led by Isaac Hertzog (who initially supported the negotiations and campaigned against Netanyahu’s bold attempt to sway the US Congress by his personal appearance). Hertzog’s view of the deal is now the same as the right leaning Likud Party, its high profile PM Netanyahu and its coalition partners. Similarly, all recent opinion polls in Israel put public opposition to the deal at around 80%.
I see four important likely outcomes (assuming the Motion either fails to pass or, if passed, is vetoed and the veto is sustained):
1 – Almost all Republican candidates vying for their party’s nomination for the 2016 US Presidential elections have committed to rescind the Agreement by Executive Order. Because the agreement was not enacted by the normal treaty process but by Executive Order, it lacks the formal status of a treaty, and if rescinded by the same process, it would thus no longer be binding on the US. Only Donald Trump seems to be advocating for some modification to the JCPOA as opposed to the outright rescission proposed by the next highest polling candidates.
2 – Conventional war with Israel is more likely given that the sanctions thaw and signing bonus will have the effect of significantly ramping up Iranian arming of its anti-Israel proxies; an outcome ironically admitted to by key Obama Administration officials such as Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
3 – A nuclear arms race will commence in earnest in the world’s most dangerous region. The Saudis may have been temporarily placated by the promise of more US arms and military aid but as the prominent Sunni Arab nation, it will not stand by idly and allow Shi’ite Iran to ramp up its regional hegemony with a nuclear bomb. Egypt, as the next largest Arab nation, will likely follow suit as may the Kuwaitis.
4 – Israel will not allow Iran to go nuclear. Because this deal makes that possibility MORE not less likely, so the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is now more likely especially if a Republican President is elected in 2016. Remember that Israel has its high profile prior form on this matter. In June 1986, the Israeli Air force destroyed Iraq’s fledgling nuclear bomb development programme at Osirak. They did the same to Syria’s similar attempt (assisted by North Korea) at Al Kibar in September 2007. Unlike many in the west who brush off the steady stream of annihilation rhetoric from Iran’s leaders as domestic political puffery, the Israelis remember similar dismissal of long published Nazi Jewish extermination goals and have vowed “never again”. Netanyahu has reiterated the threat of an Israeli military strike in the event that Iran ‘breaks out’ on more than one occasion. On matters like this, it would pay to take the Israelis at their word!
Few recall Obama’s campaign promise in 2007 to negotiate with Iran without conditions; a policy that, at the time, placed him to the left of even his Democrat rivals. With his showcase domestic reform (Obamacare) faltering and proving to be both costly and unpopular, with his presiding over the most devastating electoral losses for his party at the national and state level in over 70 years, after a raft of shambolic foreign policy catastrophes (Syria – need I say any more), Obama was hungry for a legacy building showpiece achievement. John Kerry’s appeasing instincts were on display soon after he returned from active duty in Vietnam so he made the perfect negotiator for Obama. After Obama ignored his Syrian red line over chemical weapons, stood by idly as the Russians took the Crimea and allowed militia incursions into Ukraine and ramped up the rhetoric against Israel, the Mullahs in Tehran knew they were dealing with a weak, pacifist dilettante anxious to sign any big agreement with them. The US gave away pretty much all its previous bottom lines and prostrated itself before the savvy Iranian negotiators in Geneva and have effectively given Iran a green light to obtain nuclear weapons AND arm their global terrorism activities for a generation. And for this I’m sure Obama and Kerry will be awarded a Nobel Peace prize such is the inverted world we now live in!