July 14, the day the P5+1 powers announced they’d finalized an agreement with Iran aimed at curbing its rogue nuclear program, may well turn out to have been the deal’s finest day. In the month since then, opponents of the accord have seen their prospect of blocking it in Congress rise from slim to, well, not quite so slim. Here are 12 insights into what began to a significant extent as a battle between President Barack Obama, chief advocate of the “best” and only deal, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leading opponent of the “stunning historic mistake,” and has now become a struggle between the president and an anguished chunk of his own Democratic Party’s legislators.
1. Flaws in the deal. What is most helping the deal’s opponents is elements of the deal itself. As American legislators have familiarized themselves with the small print, some have taken on board opponents’ protestations that the accord legitimizes Iran as a nuclear threshold state; that the inspection process of suspect sites is unworkable; that Iran is given leave to continue its R&D so that it can speedily break out to the bomb come the day; that the sanctions relief is premature and would be irreversible; and that the deal provides Iran with vast amounts of money that it will surely use to wreak more havoc in the region and sponsor terrorism worldwide.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz actually volunteered this last concern in a webcast with American Jews Thursday that had been intended to alleviate opposition. “We are concerned about some possible escalation in their support for terrorism, meddling in the region in terms of stability,” Moniz said, unprompted. “Obviously Hezbollah terrorism is an example.”
2. No better terms? Significantly further boosting the opponents, ironically, is President Obama himself. The president has been at his articulate professorial finest in extolling its virtues, but his insistence that this is not merely the best, but the only, deal that could have been done, and that there are no alternatives, simply isn’t credible to many of the doubters. Would Iran really have walked away if the US-led negotiators had insisted on a more effective inspections regime? Would it really have walked away if it had not been permitted to continue research on its fastest potential centrifuges? The president is adamant that it would have. But he’s not entirely persuasive.
3. No legitimate criticism? Even some of Obama’s most fervent opponents do not question his commitment to stopping the Iranian nuclear program or his conviction that this accord is the best way to do it. They recognize, furthermore, that he is utterly, 100% convinced that nobody could possibly look at the terms of the deal, and the context in which it was negotiated, and do anything but support it. The consequence of Obama’s absolute conviction that the facts of the deal can only lead one to back it, however, is that he thinks anyone who opposes it must be indifferent to the facts and motivated by some kind of nefarious purpose. And that’s a stance that is inaccurate, alienating and potentially poisonous. Although Obama refuses to acknowledge this, it is obvious that there are legitimate, fact-based, nonpartisan, non-nefarious objections to the deal. And the president’s repeated insinuations that those who object to it are seeking war or are being perniciously lobbied just don’t hold water.
Had Schumer backed the accord, the campaign to stop it would have been over
4. The current consensus. And yet, while the consensus is that the deal will initially be rejected by both houses, the consensus is also that, if and when a presidential veto is then utilized, legislators are not going to vote by the necessary two-thirds to ultimately defy their president. Opponents’ chances of thwarting the deal may have grown in the past month. But not sufficiently, as of now.
5. A binary moment. In the battle to thwart the deal, New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s decision to come out against was a binary moment. Had Schumer, whom nobody can accuse of being a political lightweight, backed the accord, the campaign to stop it would have been over.
House minority whip Steny Hoyer’s position, which he is still considering, will also be significant. Former majority leader Hoyer (D-MD) was in Israel last week leading a group of more than 20 mainly freshman Democrat legislators. A Republican delegation followed a few days later. Both groups met with Netanyahu. Word is that the Democrats came under enormous pressure not to go through with the long-scheduled trip to Israel, where it was clear Netanyahu and other Israeli officials would highlight objections to the deal. The pressure failed.
6. Directly challenging the president. Opponents of the deal note that something like 20 key senators and about four times as many members of the House — the legislators who will determine whether the deal is approved — have been silent to date on how they will vote. The opponents readily acknowledge that it is highly unpleasant to be directly challenging the president for their support.
Jewish opponents of the deal rather wonder to whom the president is referring when he asserts that “many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.” He can’t mean the long-gone George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or the neocons. Joe Biden, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Chuck Hagel all backed the war, but he probably isn’t thinking of them either. Netanyahu, perhaps? AIPAC (which didn’t take a formal position on the Iraq war)? Puzzling, indeed, and a little nasty.
At his long, sometimes charged meeting with US Jewish leaders last Tuesday, the president is understood to have warned Jewish organizational opponents of the deal that if they thought they were looking tough and strong in standing up to him, they were actually being short-sighted, and that they risk doing lasting damage to US-Israel ties. Apparently, he doesn’t consider himself to blame for any such damage. The dispute — Netanyahu’s prominent role in trying to galvanize opposition and Obama’s rallying-the-Democrats defense — is indeed rendering Israel and its well-being a more partisan issue in American politics than anyone can recall. All of which serves to underline that if Jewish opponents of the deal such as AIPAC believed the fight was lost, they would have abandoned it.
7. What would Obama do if Congress says no? Hampering opponents as they strive to make their case with anguished, uncertain legislators is the very basic and incendiary question of what happens if the deal is blocked. To hear the president, the only alternative to this deal is military intervention. If Congress rejects it, does that mean Obama will resort to force to stop Iran? That seems absurd, unthinkable — but, again, he keeps saying that Iran must be stopped and that the only alternative to this deal is war. Or, by contrast, would he do whatever he can to minimize the impact of Congressional rejection on a deal he insists the entire world, barring Israel, strongly supports? Would he, to take a for instance, defy the spirit of a Congressional decision by suspending the executive sanctions on Iran that he himself put together? It’s all extremely murky (as Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute elaborates here).
8. The opponents’ message to legislators. What the opponents of the deal are saying to legislators is that a great deal of uncertainty surrounds the question of what happens next if they vote to block this accord. Would Iran come back to the table to renegotiate? Would it furiously accelerate its nuclear program? What would the now-reduced P4+1 do? So, yes, uncertainty and a certain amount of instability are the order of the day if the deal is blocked.
But, their argument then continues, such instability is minor when compared to the instability that is absolutely guaranteed if the deal goes through: Iran can either break the deal at some point and push for the bomb or, more likely, largely honor the deal knowing that, as an internationally acknowledged legitimate nuclear threshold state, it can almost instantly push for a bomb when the various sunset clauses expire. Others in the region will inevitably seek their own deterrent nuclear capabilities. An emboldened Iran will inevitably pursue its expansionist agenda in the region and beyond. Israel has indicated that it cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran.
It’s a case of risk analysis: Which path creates greater, more dangerous instability?
Blocking the deal, the opponents argue, therefore, is a recipe for possible short-term instability and for a plausible, ultimately more effective recipe for thwarting Iran. They should vote no and demand that the administration go back and negotiate better terms. And when the president says that can’t be done, that Iran will refuse, and that the P5+1 will fall apart, they should tell him: You must try. Because, the opponents argue, passing this gravely flawed deal — which entrenches this dangerous regime in power, funds its dark ambitions, and paves its path to the bomb — guarantees creating wide and grave conflict with dire repercussions for America’s allies, America and the world.
That adds up to a case of risk analysis: Which path creates greater, more dangerous instability?
9. Obama’s own fears. Some of those who were at last Tuesday’s US Jewish leadership meeting with the president claim that he actually made what amounts to the opponents’ argument himself. Asked what keeps him up at night on the Iran nuclear front, he apparently said that he wasn’t worried about the first 10 years of the deal, but that he expected the Iranians to press up against the edges of its terms in around years six, seven or eight, so that by year 10 their most advanced centrifuges would be ready. (In remarks the White House strenuously tried to reinterpret, he told NPR in April that Iran’s breakout time would be down to almost nothing after 13 years, so his concerns would seem to be growing increasingly acute.) He acknowledged to the US Jewish leaders that the deal, therefore, doesn’t solve all the problems posed by Iran’s nuclear drive, but said he comforted himself with the knowledge that America, under the agreed terms, did not give up on any of its options — including, that is, the potential for military intervention. It would be up to successor presidents, he reportedly said, to make the necessary decisions.
One possible interpretation of all that: There’s a choice between possible military conflict now, and near-certain military conflict later. And Obama has gone for the second option.
10. Netanyahu’s role. While Netanyahu has been on the front line of opposition to the deal — including via the spectacularly divisive tactic of March’s lobbying speech in Congress — the next few weeks while Congress makes up its mind are not about Netanyahu anymore. He’s made his argument in extremely forceful terms. Now the ball is in the legislators’ court.
But the repercussions of the Obama-Netanyahu conflict will yet ripple far, long and hard. The relationship between the two leaders is abysmal, and both sides have failed to fix it. Neither one is so much as listening to the other anymore.
11. The president’s definition of Israel’s security. Obama feels immensely bitter at being perceived by some critics in Israel and the Jewish community, largely but by no means solely because of the Iran issue, as a tremendously problematic president (to put it politely).
He can rightly claim to have stood by Israel on a whole register of security issues: Iron Dome? Check. Riding to the rescue when the Israel Embassy was under attack in Cairo in 2011? Check. Military assistance? Check. Intelligence-sharing? Check. And so on.
But what has rendered key American Jewish figures increasingly critical of him is what they see as his failure to stand by Israel in the overarching sense — in terms of visible, undimmable public commitment. Calling the alliance unshakable and unbreakable, as the president does routinely, becomes meaningless when you’re also publicly shaming and isolating Israel, as Obama did in his American University speech, as the only nation on earth not supporting the Iran deal.
His predecessor George W. Bush was actually less helpful to Israel on some of the nuts and bolts, but stronger on the clearly visible, gut-identification level — the level that our enemies watch. Publicly isolating Israel is the antithesis of having Israel’s back.
The president himself evidently doesn’t see the incongruity. He has been prepared to put public space between the US and Israel since early in his administration — and simultaneously frustrated over his inability to work more effectively and make progress with Israel on key issues. The central factor here is trust. Israel doesn’t fully trust him.
12. Fateful days. It’s not yet clear when Congress will put the Iran deal to its various voting tests. The text was formally transferred by the State Department to Congress on July 19, so the legislators’ 60-day review period ends on September 17 — immediately after Rosh Hashana. Legislators may choose to vote before the end of the 60 days. But it could be that the fate of the Iran deal will be determined during the Jewish calendar’s 10 Days of Penitence between the New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Make what you will of that.