Mar 9 3:54 PM

What 47 Republican senators may not understand about Iran

Members of Congress rise to applaud during a GOP-sponsored address by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Republican senators, like Netanyahu, hope to scuttle a pending nuclear deal with Iran.
Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call / Getty Images

There’s a charming naiveté to the open letter [PDF] by 47 Republican senators that condescendingly seeks to explain features of the U.S. constitutional system to Iran’s leaders that they otherwise “may not fully understand.”

The missive warns that, with respect to “your nuclear negotiations with our government ... any agreement regarding your nuclear-weapons program that is not approved by the Congress” could be revoked by the next president “with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.”

Beyond the amusing inaccuracies about U.S. parliamentary order, it seems there are some features of the nuclear negotiations that the signatory senators don’t fully understand — not only on the terms of the deal, but also on who would be party to an agreement.

There are no negotiations on Iran’s “nuclear-weapons program” because the world’s intelligence agencies (including those of the U.S. and Israel) do not believe Iran is currently building nuclear weapons, nor has it made a strategic decision to use its civilian nuclear infrastructure to produce a bomb. An active Iranian nuclear-weapons program would render moot the current negotiations, because Iran would be in fundamental violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

As things stand, Tehran remains within the terms of the NPT, which allows nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, but monitors member states to prevent weaponization. Tehran and the IAEA remain in dispute over full compliance with all transparency requirements of the NPT, particularly over alleged previous research into weapons design. But Iran’s nuclear facilities remain under constant monitoring by international inspectors who certify that no nuclear material is being diverted.

The current negotiations are focused on strengthening verifiable safeguards against weaponization over-and-above those required by the NPT, yet the Republican-led Congress, egged on by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is warning that those goals are insufficient, and the terms and time-frame of the deal are unacceptable.

The key element missing from the GOP Senators’ letter, however, is that the deal is not being negotiated between Iran and the United States; it is being negotiated between Iran and the P5+1 group, in which the U.S. is joined by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. Even if the U.S. is the key player in that group, the deal being pursued reflects an international consensus — the same consensus that has made sanctions against Iran so effective.

This was likely in the mind of Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who dismissed the letter as “of no legal value” and a “propaganda ploy.” Zarif noted that the deal would indeed be an international agreement adopted by the U.N. Security Council, which a new administration would be obliged to uphold — and that any attempt by the White House or Congress to abrogate, unilaterally modify or impede such an agreement would be a breach of U.S. obligations. 

At odds with consensus

The U.S. has barely traded with Iran since the revolution of 1979; its capacity to sanction Iran relies on its ability to persuade or force other countries to do the same. Many of Iran’s major trading partners, such as Russia, China, India and Turkey, are not taking their lead from the U.S., even if they’re partially abiding by sanctions imposed by Washington and the European Union. Moscow and Beijing, in particular, have expanded trade and investment deals in recent months, and more ominously signaled a willingness to cooperate with Iran on defense issues to an extent that will make Tehran’s adversaries uncomfortable.

China late last year conducted joint Naval exercises with Iran, while Russia has raised the prospect of selling Iran its most sophisticated surface-to-air missile system.

The scenario sketched by the GOP Senators would have an incoming U.S. president tear up or seek to unilaterally modify an international agreement painstakingly negotiated over seven years, even if that agreement were being observed by Iran. Such a move would put Washington sharply at odds with the international consensus, leaving it more isolated than Iran on the question of sanctions or other pressure tactics.

And that would likely suit Iran’s clerical leaders just fine. After all, what the clerics want is an end to sanctions, not invitations to address Congress or host political fundraisers. And the hardliners running against the current government in the 2017 elections are, for their own political ends, also seeking to undermine the current negotiations.

Moreover, the Senators’ letter’s scenario also disregards Iran’s own leverage in the talks. As Columbia University professor and former National Security Council Iran analyst Gary Sick noted, periods of heightened pressure on Tehran over the past decade-plus have actually seen it increase and accelerate its nuclear work, shortening the distance it would have to travel should it decide to build nuclear weapons. While sanctions played a role in bringing Iran to the table, Iran’s leaders also know that enrichment of uranium to 20 percent helped bring Western powers to the table seeking compromise. Sick warns that should the current deal be broken in search of one more to the liking of a new U.S. administration, Iran could be expected to escalate its nuclear work to the same end.

So, while the GOP senators believe Iran’s leaders may not understand the workings of the U.S. Constitution, the decision-makers in Tehran may see a bigger picture than those Republican legislators. 

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