U.S.-Iran Nuke Deal Faces Uphill Struggle in Congress

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U.S.-Iran Nuke Deal Faces Uphill Struggle in Congress
| published July 16, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff writers

U.S. President Barack Obama faced a heavy storm of criticism on Wednesday hours after a historic deal was reached between the United States and Iran. The accord lifts decades of sanctions in exchange for limitations on Iran’s ambitions to develop a nuclear weapon.

The President raised the ante in the public relations battle over the accord, telling journalists that the deal would surely prevent the two countries from going to war, and that the historic agreement would forestall an arms race in the Middle East and tamp down the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

But the President faced tough questions from scores of reporters during a lengthy and sometimes tense White House news conference Wednesday afternoon. Obama will also have to convince skeptical Republicans—as well as some wary Democrats—in Congress that the deal forged after nearly a month of negotiations will, in reality, have any effect at all on Iran’s nuclear program. Critics say that the accord would, if anything, encourage the very arms race the President says can be averted, a chord which numerous reporters struck during the sometimes intense press conference. Obama waved aside the notion that the deal will spur anxiety in Israel, and perhaps nudge Saudi Arabia—an Iran foe—closer toward its own nuclear program.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told members of parliament on Wednesday that his nation might have to eventually take stringent military action against Iran—presumably targeted air strikes—with or without the permission or cooperation of the U.S. Netanyahu also told Lester Holt of NBC News that if Israel sensed an existential threat was emerging from Iran, the Jewish nation would strike preemptively. The Prime Minister also told Holt that on the phone with President Obama, Netanyahu said that the agreement was a disaster.

“I said that this deal poses a great danger to Israel,” Netanyahu told Holt, “I believe that it poses a danger to America and to the world. When you let the number one terrorist regime in the world have a sure path to the bomb, and, hundreds of billions of dollars with which to finance terrorism around the world, that’s not good for any of us.”

Saudi Arabia worries mightily about a resurgent Iran as a military power in the region. One of the key concerns of many critics—liberals and conservatives—is that Iran openly backs Shiite rebel and militant groups, including those fighting the moderate forces in Yemen, which is Saudi Arabia’s now unstable neighbor to the south. Earlier this year, as Yemen devolved into chaos and as its president fled the country, Saudi Arabia—with the backing of Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates—intervened in the civil war with air strikes and military action targeting Houthi militants, the rebels being backed by Iran. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it will not abide a nuclear-armed Iran—its most bitter adversary in the region.

Saudi Arabia has neither endorsed nor embraced the accord between the U.S. and Iran. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other moderate states—most of whom derive much wealth from the production of oil—also worry that an Iranian economy thrown into a full-scale acceleration could pose a threat to markets, and might so quickly enrich Iranian coffers that Iran would be able to rapidly increase its funding of anti-Sunni militias and rebels in several regional hotspots. In Jordan and Turkey, there were concerns that an emboldened Iran might also use its new revenue streams to ramp up funding of groups like Hezbollah, as well as increasing its already substantial support for Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.

On Thursday, the Obama administration sought to push back against the criticism by offering to increase technology sharing, intelligence sharing, and military aid to Israel (even as the President also announced his intentions to begin cutting the number of U.S. troops beginning later this year), and by launching a public relations offensive to reassure allies in the wider region that the U.S. will be watching Iran closely for signs of aggression. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also announced that the United States would increase its previous military and security commitments to Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab states, adding that the U.S. and its friends among the Gulf States and on the Arabian Peninsula were “committed to working together to push back against any extremist enterprises, including the activities of Iran.”

The White House will also deploy various top officials to a dozen Middle Eastern countries to assuage concerns and smooth ruffled feathers. Example: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter will meet with top Israeli military leaders this weekend to discuss how the U.S. will implement enhancements to Israeli weaponry and military technology, including several high-dollar improvements to Israel’s so-called Iron Dome anti-missile system. Secretary Kerry and others will also make stops in Qatar and other countries in August to discuss military aid and offer assurances that the U.S. is committed to regional stability. At home, the White House deployed national security advisor Ben Rhodes to meet with American Jewish leaders and Jewish Democrats in the House and Senate. Vice-President Joe Biden was tasked with briefing members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and also with talking to nervous Democrats.

Republicans are not convinced, and they say that the deal is still subject to their concurrence. GOP leaders promised a fight in Congress, and even some Democrats were openly worried that the accord may have gone too far and given Iran too much license. Republicans have openly stated that not only does the accord pose a threat to Israel, but the arrangement also leaves too many loopholes for Iran to avoid accountability. Without unfettered verification, GOP lawmakers say, Iran will be free to violate the basic tenets laid out in the deal, and an Iranian nuclear program could proceed in secret with few limitations.

The Iranian deal is a landmark agreement, worked out after many weeks of often tense, complex negotiations between the United States, Iran, and five other countries. Among other key components, it ends more than 30 years’ worth of economic sanctions, banking and credit restrictions, and trade embargoes placed on Iran. The Iranian economy has suffered mightily under the weight of those sanctions, even as other countries—including China, Russia and North Korea—have continued varying forms of exchange with Iran.

Still, some Democrats are guardedly optimistic, and say they intend to support the White House if Republicans launch a fight on Capitol Hill.

For Iran, the deal is a game-changer. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking on live television to Iranian audiences, called the accord an “important juncture in the history of our country and [our Islamic] revolution.” Rouhani also called the agreement “a beginning for a new phase in international relations.”

In Tehran, people celebrated in streets, in restaurants and in shopping areas and markets. According to The Guardian, thousands celebrated beginning immediately after Iftar, the night-time dinner which breaks the fasting of Ramadan—some holding aloft handmade signs, others honking car and truck horns, others even dancing in public places, a activity normally banned by the religious rules of the Islamic Republic. On Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media, Iranians celebrated as well. For most Iranians, the easing of economic sanctions will mean a return to an economy which can move forward; increased sales of Iranian goods and products, lifting of banking restrictions, unfreezing of some assets, and, in theory, jobs and growth. The agreement will also ease travel restrictions, which will open the door for the injection of cash as foreigners spend more money in Tehran—in hotels, in shops and markets, in restaurants.

Iran will also get to sell its pent-up supplies of oil to the rest of the world. Iran is a major oil producer with massive reserves and even greater untapped fields. But economic sanctions have kept most of the country’s oil supplies from reaching the global markets for more than a decade. Iranian oil could begin flowing onto the world markets as early as later this year, and that could mean even lower gas prices in the U.S. (an unintended side effect of the nuclear agreement).

Some Iranians are still bitter that despite secret intelligence help and some limited military cooperation after the al Qaeda attacks of 9/11, then-President George W. Bush famously labelled Iran a member of the Axis of Evil, placing Iran in the same category with North Korea and Iraq. Bush’s declaration was based on Iran’s then-aggressive program to develop nuclear weapons. The United States and its allies engaged in a variety of forms of pressure, including cyber operations to disrupt the computer networks used in the Iranian nuclear power program, and even the assassination of several key scientists and military operatives.

But many Iranian moderates and reformers are hopeful that the agreement will create a cycle of positive spin, encouraging better relations between the U.S. and Iran and other countries, and perhaps sparking positive reinforcement at home in Tehran. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next March, at which time many in Iran hope that political change and governmental reform can ride the crest of improved economic conditions and nudge some hardliners out of power.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Yemen’s Violence Increase; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; March 30, 2015.

Why Oil Prices Will Continue to Fall; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; July 3, 2015.