By Fred Benson
In the midst of an internal Pentagon debate many years ago, I complained to the responsible official that it had become an extremely hostile negotiation. His response – a good lesson – was: “Any important task will, by definition, breed conflict. Get used to it.”
In the matter of congressional approval or disapproval of the Iran nuclear agreement, the heated rhetoric coming from supporters and opponents alike clearly reflects the important national security implications of this decision. The president has stated that “This is our best bet by far to make sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon.” For him, that alone is enough to justify congressional passage.
Detractors, however, claim it is a deal that falls far short of ensuring the security of the United States; one that should be scrapped and replaced by an agreement that expands the scope and depth of the current economic sanctions and applies a far more onerous set of restrictions on, or eliminates completely, the Iranian nuclear development program.
Like most critical national security issues, reaching a decision becomes a matter of evaluating trade-offs. Acknowledging that there are potential risks in both implementing or not implementing this deal, it is now up to members of Congress to determine which option yields the greater net benefit to the United States, or if you prefer, presents the least dangerous course of action.
Supporters of the plan argue that U.S. withdrawal would lead to rapid dissolution of the coalition of nations supporting economic sanctions on Iran. As a consequence, even if the U.S. chose to continue its sanctions program, tens of billions of dollars would soon flow to the Iranian government from newly revived trade relationships to use how, where and when it chooses. In addition, Iran easily could accelerate development of a nuclear weapon that would not occur if a rigorous inspection regime had been put in place. As recently suggested by former Maine Senator and respected international negotiator George Mitchell, both options have essentially the same risks. But not closing the deal would bring them to the forefront more quickly.
After returning to Washington from their August break, members of Congress will have just a few days before having to vote. Senate opponents will need only a simple majority (51) to kill the deal. The current (unofficial) headcount is 58 against or leaning against, 26 for or leaning for, and 16 undecided. If those numbers hold, the bill disallowing the deal will pass but then be vetoed by the president. If fewer than 67 senators subsequently vote to override the veto, the outcome would be reversed, and the Iran deal would remain alive. At this point, it looks quite possible that this is what will occur.
The same is likely to be true in the House of Representatives. Labeling the Iran deal a “diplomatic masterpiece,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi expressed confidence that the “House would be able to uphold the president’s veto of a Republican-backed bill designed to kill the deal.” In what is described as the most intense personal lobbying of his White House tenure, President Obama is telling congressional Democrats that he “wants, and expects” their support of his expected veto.
There is growing U.S. citizen interest in passage of the deal. Three recent polls report general U.S. public support running at a 56-37 percent margin. Overall, however, 64 percent of the respondents registered skepticism that Iran will follow through with the commitments demanded of them in the agreement. The obvious conclusion is that most U.S. citizens are wary of the deal, but still willing to give it a try.
Interestingly, one poll found that Jewish Americans support the plan by 49-31 percent, despite pro-Israel lobby plans to spend up to $40 million in advertising to defeat it.
For the past three decades, American leaders have become increasingly eager to invoke military force as the default instrument in carrying out U.S. foreign policy. Considering the weighty supposition that approving the Iran nuke deal involves less danger than sidelining it, might it not just be possible that this is a good time to take some risk for a peaceful solution?
If it works, great. If it does not, then tougher options may have to be considered. In the meantime, the plan deserves a chance.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. [email protected]