Wednesday, 11 December 2013

U.S.: 'Congress'-Attempting to Rewrite Iran's deal

On 24 November, Secretary of State John Kerry signed a landmark nuclear pact with Iran. On Tuesday, he tried to sell the deal to a skeptical Congress. Kerry's appearance before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs marked the first time a senior administration official faces lawmakers who have been harshly critical of the pact since it was announced in Geneva on November 24th -- and who are now looking for ways of rewriting it. 

Congress is already preparing further financial sanctions targeted on Iran’s oil sector that, if passed, could see Iran walking away from the interim deal.  Secretary of State Kerry was sent to plead with Congressional leaders to hold fire, but instead faced criticism over the extent to which Congress was unaware of years of secret diplomacy with Iran.

California Republican Ed Royce, the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, is one of the most prominent opponents of the deal. "Under the agreement, the international community relieves the sanctions pressure on Iran while its centrifuges continue to enrich uranium," Royce said. "This hearing is an opportunity for committee members of both parties to press Secretary Kerry to explain why the Obama administration believes this sanctions-easing agreement is the right course."

The White House is desperately trying to keep Congress from imposing new sanctions on Iran during while talks towards a broader nuclear pact continue over the next six months. In a strange bedfellows alliance, both the administration and the government of Iranian President Hassan Rohani argue that any new punitive measures would scuttle the current deal and end the negotiations towards a final pact before they even really got underway.

Kerry amplified that argument during his time on Capitol Hill yesterday, but it's not clear if his efforts got much traction. Influential lawmakers in the House and Senate are crafting measures that would impose hard-hitting new sanctions on Iran in six months if the current talks don't result in a deal. Despite White House objections, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other powerful Democrats have expressed support for the bill. The House version has drawn the support of Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.

The problem of the trust-deficit is underscored by the fact that for many years it has been widely understood that a successful agreement would look like the one reached in Geneva. Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium to relatively low levels (3-5 per cent) but submit to an even more stringent inspection regime. Iran would freeze work on a heavy water facility and ship out, dilute, or convert its stock of 20 per cent enriched uranium (weapons grade uranium requires enrichment beyond 90 per cent but the process is non-linear, meaning Iran’s increasing capacity to quickly enrich to 20 per cent was a major concern for the P5+1). These conditions would legitimise Iran’s right to nuclear energy but render it unable to produce the fissile material required for weaponization. The vast array of sanctions levied against Iran would then be sequentially ramped down.

Iran could throw out the inspectors, but this suicidal act of provocation would still leave Iran many months and probably years short of a deliverable bomb, during which time it would face almost inevitable military attack. Whilst the characterisation of an irrational and suicidal Iran has certainly featured heavily in domestic discourse, particularly in Washington and Tel Aviv, it has thankfully never made it into the decision-making calculus of the P5+1. Yet, equally, Iran never made any progress in persuading the world that its intentions were entirely peaceful either.

The deal protected both sides’ core interests and avoided the zero-sum situation of one side having to accept defeat at the expense of the other. If anything, Iran has settled for rather more modest sanctions-relief than was expected: just $7 billion of which $4 billion involves the repatriation of payments for oil sales that were caught in a financial no-mans-land when the banking sanctions came in.

Iran has faced perhaps the most comprehensive and devastating application of sanctions in modern history; it would be foolish to believe that Iran is not very motivated to reverse them. It was Rohani’s pledge to roll back sanctions that won him the Presidency over the summer and it is the faith Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has in him to do so that protects him from hard-line opponents.

But there’s a reason why the literature on economic sanctions is profoundly sceptical of their efficacy. Ten years ago, when sanctions began, Iran had less than 160 centrifuges spinning, it now has over 18,000. Iran has increased its centrifuges, built a new reactor, and put another into the national grid – all in the face of sanctions. Even now, Iran will never submit to zero enrichment on Iranian soil, the core demand of the unilateral and UN Security Council sanctions. The reality is that a deal was only made possible because the West shifted its position and accepted that Iran’s nuclear programme was so sophisticated that it will never be fully dismantled.

This is a major concern for President Obama’s team, but one must assume that Congress’ potential intransigence has been discussed during secret talks with Iran. Obama will do his utmost to hold back Congress, and his hand will be strengthened if Iran quickly demonstrates its determination to hold up its side of the bargain. Yet, if he fails, he also has the ability to provide sanctions relief by Executive Order. He also has the capacity to limit the extent to which sanctions are applied or interpreted. Furthermore, even Congress cannot prevent the EU from dropping their sanctions. Most importantly, however, even recalcitrant Congressmen will be aware that they will be held accountable if they torpedo this deal and Washington finds itself dealing with a new war in the Middle East.

What the deal with Iran shows is that the two most formidable domestic opponents of a US-Iranian rapprochement, the pro-Israel lobby and Congress, are both weakened and outmanoeuvred.  The Obama administration broadly succeeded in persuading the American public that the alternative to reaching an accommodation with Iran is another war in the Middle East. This positioned Congress (not necessarily unreasonably) as the war-mongers at a time when the American public has never been more reluctant to embark on foreign wars.

The real significance of what was achieved in Geneva lies not just in the concessions offered by Iran, considerable as they are, but in how both sides seem to have finally persuaded each other of their good intentions. This will surely be tested over the next six months, but should it hold, both sides will be rewarded with a transformational foreign policy victory.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Reuters- US Secretary of State, John Kerry, at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs-US-Congress-Photo