It's like Obamacare all over again, except on an international scale this time, with the Prime Minister of Israel acting as a major lobbyist against the JCPOA, both directly and indirectly through his Ambassador, AIPAC, Israel's designated agent in the US, and the rest of the "Israel Lobby", and complicating the already partisan politics in the US. With the polemicists in full throat, the more one hears the more it echoes the partisan battle over health care. Damn the facts, full speed ahead or astern. Somewhat lost in the diatribes of the opponents of the JCPOA is the fact that we are dealing with nuclear non-proliferation at a pretty fundamental level. Yet much of the debate seems to be related more to political partisanship (deny Obama a "victory"), the culture wars (the ultra-right against everybody else), what is best for Israel (fueled by Netanyahu's belligerent fear mongering about existential threats to Israel), resolution of the various crises in the Middle East and regime change (although this latter issue is only intimated sub-rosa). In short, with the exception of the few serious people who are concerned about how effective the JCPOA will be in actually achieving its goal, we don't have our eye on the ball with regard to the one issue which makes all of the others pale in comparison.
Few seem to want to consider how we got to where we are. It's worth taking a look. It all started because of the concern that Iran was getting to the point where it was, or would soon be, within 2-3 months of accumulating enough weapons grade uranium to manufacture a nuclear explosive device. At that point there was a consensus that this would be unacceptable. The split was over whether to take military action to deter Iran from following this path or to try first to achieve this goal through diplomatic negotiations (a split that still exists although the militarists for the most part try to obscure their intentions). The President chose diplomacy as the initial course of action while stating that all options were on the table, except containment, that is, the US would not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran. Keep in mind - this exercise is all about minimizing the likelihood of having another country with nuclear arms (with the potential access to such weapons by terrorists), not about bringing peace to the Middle East, a perhaps utopian quest.
To the extent that those favoring the military option acquiesced in the diplomatic option, it was, on the whole, based on the premise that diplomacy had no chance of success, and that after diplomacy failed it would be "bombs away" with no regrets. To their chagrin, diplomacy has succeeded, and they are now fighting a rear guard action to "un-succeed", if you will, the diplomatic process so they can get back to the military option. Very few will say this openly, of course, because the great majority of the American people would not tolerate another Middle East military adventure (by now we know how well these turn out). Beyond their proclivity to resolve all international disputes by the use of force, these neo-cons and ex-Cold War warriors are more interested in "regime change". They believe they can solve all of the Middle East issues by installing a new friendly government in Tehran which they believe would be the outcome of the exercise of the military option. Revisit Iraq, anyone? Where did ISIS come from? Short of all-out war, which the US public would not abide, bombing alone, according to the experts, would have only limited effectiveness. Meir Dagan, a former Director of the Mossad, has said that an "an attack on Iran's nuclear reactors would be foolish". Not only would it not foreclose the likelihood that Iran would ultimately achieve a nuclear weapon or weapons, it would further entrench the Mullahs and the ultra-right in Iran.
But let's get to the JCPOA itself. After the imposition of internationally supported sanctions which brought Iran to the table, the initial step in the negotiations was to achieve an interim "stand-still" agreement freezing Iran's nuclear program and rolling back parts of it in return for a partial easing of sanctions, so that Iran could not drag out the more substantive negotiations while moving steadily ahead with development of a capability which could result in nuclear armed weapons. Such an agreement was achieved in 2013. The substantive negotiations then began between the P5+1 (US, England, France, Russia, China and Germany) and Iran and ultimately resulted in those parties (plus the European Union) signing the JCPOA which we have before us today. According to estimates at that time Iran needed as little as 2-3 months to enrich enough uranium for its first nuclear bomb, and that's where they will be today if the JCPOA is rejected. If the JCPOA goes into effect, it will take Iran at least a year to make enough weapons grade uranium for a bomb.
As to the mechanics of the JCPOA, people who actually look at it objectively have diverse views on parts of it, as one would expect for such a complex arrangement. Although there are elements to legitimately be concerned about, we can discount many of the critics, such as the Republican Senators and Congressmen and Presidential candidates, who made up their minds before they ever saw the final agreement. For them, this is still about Obama, nuclear weapons be damned.
We can also discount the views of Netanyahu and the present Israeli government. Netanyahu is obsessed with Iran and, having staked his legacy on solving the Iran nuclear problem, permanently, on his watch (see David Sanger, "Confront and Conceal", ch, 8) , came out against the JCPOA before even having seen its contents. In fact, he would be against any agreement. It should be noted that he also opposed the interim agreement, without which Iran would have reached breakout capability by now. This is a government which is so politically beholden to right wing extremists that it is no longer capable of rational judgment as to what is in its own best interest. Let me be clear that I am not advocating jettisoning Israel; one of the fundamentals of US foreign policy is and should continue to be the security of Israel. All of this only means that the views of the present government of Israel are unreliable in making an objective evaluation of the JCPOA. Whatever Netanyahu may say, the JCPOA is in the best interest of Israel as well as that of the US. If the truth be known, Netanyahu has always favored the military option and would rather go to war with Iran, or, more to the point, he would rather for the US to go to war with Iran and ride along on our coattails (along with members of the Israel Lobby, which includes neo-cons who were instrumental in promoting the second Iraq War, he was a supporter of that war, which he said would be good for Israel and the world, the real winner, as it turns out, being Iran; so much for his judgment) (For an interesting back story on the long and close relationship between Netanyahu and his Likud Party and the US neo-cons, those wonderful people who gave us the Iraq war and would like to give us one with Iran, see John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, "The Israel Lobby", in the London Review of Books, Vol. 28, No. 6, March 23, 2006). The JCPOA stands in Netanyahu's way, and thus he opposes it (to the extent even of injecting himself into US domestic politics, which is unforgiveable). On the other hand, many former senior officials in Israel's defense and security establishment support the JCPOA as the best option available, including a former director of Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service, two former Mossad directors and a former chief of IDF Defense Intelligence.
Too many in the US exhibit a failure to consider what is really at stake here and approach the JCPOA only from the instinctive and narrowly protective perspective of Israel's interests, or, more to the point, Netanyahu's views of Israel's interests, which, as indicated above, are not necessarily the same. On the contrary, the JCPOA needs to be judged first on the merits, that is, how effective it is in limiting Iran's capability to develop nuclear weapons. If it is efficacious in this regard, it is in the US interest to go forward with it. Given that the security of Israel is a keystone of American foreign policy, it is legitimate to also ask whether doing so would be harmful to Israel. If the JCPOA can contribute to halting the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, it is hard to see how that can be harmful to Israel; to the extent the US can succeed in that effort it is reducing any existential threat to Israel. But Netanyahu seemingly will be satisfied with nothing less than an attack on Iran. Another military foray by the US in the Middle East weakens the US, and concomitantly is not good for Israel. Israel and its supporters in the US should understand that having the US provide blind support to Israel and act as it's surrogate in Netanyahu's and his government's vendetta with Iran is not only detrimental to the US but also to Israel. Israel's ultimate strength and security is a function of the leadership and credibility of the US, which would be seriously compromised if the JCPOA were to be rejected and even more so if this were followed by bombing and/or war in Iran, as it would have to be if Iran were to be denied nuclear weapons.
Most Jews in the US would support the JCPOA. AIPAC and the rest of the Israel Lobby, such as the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which oppose the agreement, do not speak for American Jewry (the Conference rejected membership for J Street which supports Israel but also supports the peace process and supports the JCPOA), only for the current government of Israel, and whatever their sincerity they are misguided as to the true best interest of the State of Israel. Congress should keep this in mind - to be supportive of Israel you don't have to be anti-JCPOA.
A further consideration which seems to be ignored in the "is it good or bad for Israel" face-off is that the fate of the JCPOA is not in the first instance a bi-lateral Israel - Iran issue. Nuclear non-poliferation, the goal of the JCPOA, is a global issue in which the entire international community has an interest. This is not a matter which can be approached from the perspective of one nation; it is of concern to all nations. The international community, including even those Middle East countries who have their own antagonistic relationships with Iran, has made its voice clear - overwhelming support for the agreement. It is not for Israel to be conceded a veto on an issue of nuclear non-proliferation.
As it is clear that the Republicans in Congress, all of whom will toe the anti-Obama line, and/or prefer war and/or regime change, and will oppose the JCPOA, and the Israel Lobby, which through AIPAC is spending $20 million to defeat the JCPOA, are not interested in the merits of the JCPOA on its terms and are not listening, it is up to the Democrats in Congress to make the decision on one of the most important foreign policy issues of the post-WWII era. As, pursuant to the arcane provisions of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, it is effectively within their control to determine the fate of the JCPOA, they will be accountable for whether the Middle East is to remain free of nuclear weapons (ignoring of course the fact that Israel already has such weapons).
The technical aspects of the JCPOA are hard to fully evaluate without having a nuclear expert sitting alongside to explain the implications of the various obligations imposed on the Iranians, but it clearly imposes restrictions on Iran's nuclear program going well beyond what the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty requires. Some of the major elements of the JCPOA are as follows:
a. it lengthens from a few months to at least one year the time frame in which Iran could produce enough bomb-grade material for a single nuclear weapon, the so-called break-out point;
b. it requires Iran to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98% to under 300 kg for the next 15 years, about a third of the amount needed for a single bomb (it now has about 8,000 kg);
c. it requires Iran to keep its level of uranium enrichment at not to exceed 3.67% (bomb grade requires 90% enrichment; Iran had been processing ore to 20% enrichment; for most power reactors in the West, uranium is enriched up to 5%);
d. it requires Iran to disable the Arak facility from producing weapons grade plutonium; the reactor's spent fuel will be shipped out of the country; Iran will not be allowed to build any other heavy water reactor for 15 years;
e. it requires Iran to reduce the number of its centifuges by two-thirds from about 20,000 to about 6,000 for the next 10 years (Iran would need tens of thousands of centrifuges to create enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb);
f. it requires Iran to convert the Fordow facility into a research center;
g. it allows for unprecedented intrusive inspections at Iran's nuclear sites for 15 years with a dispute resolution mechanism to resolve disputes as to whether Iran is in breach of the JCPOA and provisions for the sanctions to snap-back in place if the dispute is not resolved satisfactorily (the mechanism is structured in such a way that the US is in a position to unilaterally have the sanctions reimposed if Iran is in breach); there is a further procedure, again for 15 years, whereby if Iran is suspected of producing nuclear materials for a weapon at an undisclosed location and Iran cannot verify the absence of such undeclared nuclear materials at the suspected location and resolve the issue by consultation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Joint Commission can mandate the necessary means for resolving the matter (this could be done by consensus or a majority vote of 5 of the 8 members of the Joint Commission - the US, England, France, Germany and the EU, i.e., the votes of Russia, China and Iran would not be neeeded); if Iran does not implement the mandate, the snap-back provisions apply; and
h. sanctions on Iran imposed in relation to its nuclear activities, excluding those related to other activities of the Iranian regime such as human rights violations and support of terror, will be lifted only after the IAEA has verified that Iran has implemented its obligations under the JCPOA.
The upshot is not only that the Iranian nuclear program is stopped in its tracks, but it is substantially reversed. True, it is not permanently eliminated, but with the JCPOA we (and Israel) are better off now than we were before negotiations started, and if the JCPOA is implemented in accordance with its terms we will be better off in 10-15 years than we are now, even if the Iranians then try to go ahead with a nuclear weapons program. Even if the Iranians breach the JCPOA at some point we are still no worse off than we are now and probably a lot better off. We still have the military option or the re-imposition of sanctions, probably more onerous than now given what would then be our even stronger moral position, and more time (because break-out would take longer) to exercise such options. Although the Iranians could still try to cheat, we will be in a better position to detect cheating with the JCPOA in place than we are now.
In short, it doesn't really cost us anything, and it buys time. Ending the Cold War took a long time too. Sure, the Iranians will continue to make trouble in the Middle East, but that's a given, and short of regime change, which could come only militarily (and we can see how well that worked in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan), there are limits to what we can do about that, although President Obama has made abundantly clear that the Administration intends to unilaterally maintain economic pressure and deploy military options if needed to deter Iranian aggression, both during and beyond the proposed nuclear accord. We need to take the long view, not something Americans easily adjust to. In 10-15 years the 1979 revolutionaries will be longer in the tooth, and demographics (more than 50% of Iranians are under 35; more than 40% under 25) may push Iran toward a more responsible role in the Middle East and in its relations with the West.
This is not to suggest that the JCPOA is perfect or risk free, but that we are better of with it than without it. Ideally the Iranians would give up their nuclear program entirely and permanently, not just for a finite period of 10-15 years, but that was never a possibility, unless, as Secretary of State Kerry suggested, you believe in unicorns. That's why we call them "negotiations". Iran is not Libya. One of the bothersome things about the most vociferous of the opponents of the JCPOA is that they will accept only total capitulation, unconditional surrender, by the Iranians as a satisfactory outcome (one hardly needs to point out how well the Versailles Treaty worked). Such people cannot be taken seriously. At worst they just want an excuse to bomb and/or achieve regime change, and we know where that has taken us in the past. Call it the return of the neo-con Cold war warriors with Iran substituting for the "Evil Empire". It's zombie foreign policy - you kill it again and again but it keeps coming back (with apologies to Paul Krugman and his characterization of the Republicans' zombie economics). At best they are naive about the nature of negotiations. The very essence of negotiations and diplomacy is compromise (this, of course, is anathema to the mindset of the Tea Party types in Congress and on the Republican presidential campaign trail whose model for the conduct of foreign policy is the playground bully). Of course, no one wants to "leave money on the table". There is always that risk, but here we get more than we give up. In essence all the Iranians achieve is the "status quo ante" by eliminating the sanctions, the return to the status of any sovereign nation (granted that they are a bad nation). On the other hand, we achieve a substantial derogation of their nuclear capability for non-civilian purposes, including the most intrusive inspection regime ever negotiated and snapback sanctions for at least 10 years, none of which we had before. Is it an iron-clad agreement? Of course not; there is no such thing. Remember the old adage, "don't let the perfect spoil the good".
When people criticize the P5+1 negotiators, they need to consider that on our side it was never an issue of giving up our sovereign rights, but that is exactly what we were requiring the Iranians to surrender in large part. This is not to suggest that there was any moral force on the Iranian side, but only to emphasize the difficulty of the negotiations in imposing our will on the Iranians. As such there undoubtedly were points on which the Iranians felt that their sovereignty was being challenged and were intransigent. This required the P5+1 negotiating team to work around such points without giving away the overall substantive outcomes which they were trying to achieve. Although we will never know, or at least not for many years, exactly what went on in these discussions, it would seem that those outcomes were in most part achieved. In countries such as Iran there is a high level of paranoia, distrust and fear of making a mistake in dealings with the West. Being unsure of themselves, the safest thing for them is to say "no". Such subjective irrationality cannot be argued away. Surely it made these negotiations difficult on a psychological level. The point is that this must be taken into account in evaluating what was accomplished and, equally important, what could be accomplished. This is particularly relevant for those who think we can go back to the table if Congress rejects the JCPOA. Such an approach reflects a failure to comprehend the dynamics of negotiations in general and particularly in this part of the world.
Some opponents argue that the US is compromising the original intent of the sanctions. This is an inaccurate characterization. The intent of sanctions was to force negotiations and ultimately an agreement limiting Iran's capability to develop nuclear weapons in order to avoid bombing/war or acceptance of Iran as a nuclear state. This has been achieved. Underlying much of the opposition to the JCPOA is that it serves as a vehicle for the opponents to express their grievances at a world which does not conform to their platitudes as to American exceptionalism, and which they don't, and make no effort to, understand. They resent that Iran is being treated as a contractually equal party rather than as a vassal state on which the US can impose its will unilaterally, but the days of the Chinese "unequal treaties" and Admiral Perry's Black Ships are long gone.
Many of the opponents are now arguing that when the sanctions will be lifted Iran will have more money to back Assad, Hamas and Hezbollah. Undoubtedly this is true, but from the first day this was inherent in the process. The goal of the sanctions was never anything but limiting Iran's nuclear weapon capability, not to remake the Middle East or convert Iran into a good neighbor. As noted above, the President has made clear that entering into the JCPOA does not foreclose countering Iran's aggressive actions on other fronts. Those are different battles. Nuclear weapons represent a different order of priority. First things first. Again, this argument ultimately relies on regime change as an objective. The argument seems to be that you can't negotiate with the devil. But we do it all the time - we did it with the Soviet Union when it was the evil empire.
Out of desperation, some opponents, who are reluctant to acknowledge that the military option, with all that it implies, is the only alternative, propose that the US and the P5+1 group maintain the sanctions or impose more onerous ones and go back to the negotiating table with Iran and insist on a better deal. The rest of the group will never accept this. If the US rejects the JCPOA the sanctions regime will collapse. As Henry Paulson, Treasury Secretary under President George W. Bush, has said, "It's totally unrealistic to believe that if we backed out of the deal that the multilateral sanctions would stay in place." As to the possibility of unilaterally imposing ramped up sanctions to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear program, Jacob J. Lew, the current Secretary of the Treasury, has said this is a "dangerous fantasy". If Congress now rejects this deal, "the elements that were fundamental in establishing that international consensus [on sanctions] will be gone.... The simple fact is that, after two years of testing Iran in negotiations, the international community does not believe that ramping up sanctions will persuade Iran to eradicate all traces of it hard-won civil nuclear program or sever its ties to its armed proxies in the region." The British Ambassador to the US has said that rejection of the deal would collapse the international sanctions regime. Senator Patty Murray, Secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference, who has come out in support of the JCPOA, spoke with the Ambassadors to the US from the five countries which negotiated the JCPOA alongside the US who told her that starting over is not an option. Not only would the international consensus that makes sanctions possible crumble, but blocking the JCPOA would damage the United States' leadership (remember the League of Nations) and raise questions about the credibility of the role of the US, both in the Middle East and globally (something to note for those opponents who want to "make America great again"). If the US were to reject the JCPOA and pull the rug out from under our allies and the UN Security Council, it would be a foreign policy disaster. We would be considered untrustworthy and undependable - a dysfunctional giant. Keep in mind that the JCPOA has been unanimously endorsed by a positive vote of all 15 members of the UN Security Council, a rarity in UN politics for an issue of this geopolitical magnitude. (It is no small matter that the US was able to hold together the P5+1 group thoughout the negotiations; that in itself was a diplomatic achievement of the first order that ranks equally with the achievement of the successful outcome with the Iranians.)
Of note is the fact that Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisors under Republican and Democratic Presidents, respectively, both support the JCPOA. Scowcroft's opinion piece in the August 21 Washington Post, entitled "The Iran Deal: An Epochal Moment that Congress Shouldn't Squander", is worthy of reading in its entirety, but a short quote provides the essence:
"Let us be clear: There is no credible alternative were Congress to prevent U.S. participation in the nuclear deal. If we walk away, we walk away alone. The world's leading powers worked together effectively because of U.S. leadership. To turn back now on this accomplishment would be an abdication of the United States' unique role and responsibility, incurring justified dismay among our allies and friends. We would lose all leverage over Iran's nuclear activities. The international sanctions regime would dissolve. And no member of Congress should be under the illusion that another U.S. invasion of the Middle east would be helpful."
Some argue that we can force the hands of our allies by imposing secondary sanctions against those that refuse to follow our lead. According to Lew, "that would be a disaster.... They will not agree to indefinite economic sacrifices in the name of an illusory better deal." He cites as an example the situation in 1996 when, in the absence of international support for imposing sanctions on Iran, Congress tried to create secondary sanctions that penalized foreign companies for investing in Iran's energy sector to no avail.
There are those who, while otherwise reasonably satisfied with the JCPOA for the next 10-15 years, are concerned as to the situation thereafter. The duration of the JCPOA is the most legitimate concern, no one likes to live with contingency, but there really is no better alternative available. To quibble over whether it should be, say, 20 years, does not seem constructive. The reality of the negotiation process was that there had to be some cut-off point, and that whatever would be agreed upon would seem arbitrary (as indicated above, expectations of permanent and total surrender of nuclear capability was never realistic). Fifteen years is a long time. Think back at how things have changed (although not necessarily for the better) over the last 15 years, i.e., before 9/11. The JCPOA does provide that inspectors will be able to monitor the production of rotors and other centrifuge components for up to 20 years and can monitor Iran's stocks of uranium ore concentrate for 25 years. It will be obvious if Iran starts to make weapons grade fuel, and there is a permanent ban on the metallurgy needed to turn the fuel into a bomb. Maybe things with Iran will get better, maybe not, but as noted above, if after the expiration of the main provisions of the accord Iran starts to move toward a nuclear weapon, the US still has the option of economic sanctions as well as the military option. As some have suggested, it could be helpful if the US conveyed this warning to the Iranians, even if privately, but not as a call for renegotiation.
Some have called for a full disclosure by Iran of its past weaponization activities, but that probably was never a realistic possibility, and its absence in no way weakens the agreement.
A further concern as to the effectiveness of the JCPOA is the so-called 24 day rule for resolving disputes as to suspicious sites which it is argued would allow Iran to cover up evidence of nuclear work during such period. According to US experts that would not be feasible, although smaller scale illicit activities involving non-nuclear elements might be able to be covered up. This is a risk, but not of such a nature as to justify rejecting the entire agreement.
The bottom line is - if not this, what then? The JCPOA can stand on its own merits, but there really is no viable alternative. This is much better than bombing and war, and further sanctions will never fly with the rest of the world if the US trashes the JCPOA. In which case unilaterally imposed sanctions would not work. Nor would further sanctions work this time around even if the international community could ever be convinced to impose them. The Iranians would never return to the negotiating table under such circumstances no matter how much it hurts them to stay away. The Iranians would just be more hell-bent than ever to develop a bomb (remember, these are the people who put up with poison gas from Saddam in a 7-8 years war; this is, after all, the Middle East, the home of the suicide bomber where rational self-interest seems to have gone out of style). As for bombing, the experts say it would have only limited and relatively short term effectiveness. Iran would emerge from an attack more unified than ever, and more determined to build a bomb. And if the Middle East seems chaotic now, it would only be that much worse if we were to act militarily in Iran. That's all we need - another invasion of an Islamic country. Even more important, the sacrifice of American lives under such circumstances would border on the criminal. But that is the end game many of the opponents of the JCPOA are playing. To the extent that Republicans and other conservatives acquiesced to negotiations in the first place it was on the premise that they would fail to achieve anything. Now that the negotiations have succeeded they are desperate, and this is reflected in the inflammatory language they are using and the imposition of total Iranian capitulation, an insuperable barrier, as a condition of approval.
The heart of the matter is, as Senator Barbara Boxer has said, "Iran is a bad and dangerous actor, ... but would we rather have a bad and dangerous actor with a nuclear bomb or without one?" The answer should be obvious.