Jeffrey Herf

A vote on the Iran agreement is essential

Maryland’s two Democratic Senators made news this week for different reasons. On  September 2nd, Barbara Mikulski became the 34th Democratic Senator to announce her support for the Iran deal, while on September 4,  Ben Cardin, the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced that he would vote against it.  Mikulski became the 34th Democratic Senator to support the deal, thus ensuring that the Senate will not have enough votes to override a presidential veto of a likely Senate rejection of the deal.  Cardin joins Senator Robert Menendez and Charles Schumer as, so far, the only Democratic Party to announce their intention to oppose the deal.

In his fine statement, Senator Cardin called for legislation that would enhance the enforcement prospects of this agreement. In the event that the Democratic Senators stick to their promise to support the agreement, Cardin’s suggestions can make a bad deal only slightly less bad. The question facing the Senate now is whether there are 41 Senators who are also willing to support a filibuster to prevent a vote on the Iran deal. If they reach that number, the White House and the Democratic Party in Congress will succeed in preventing a vote on one of the most important pieces of foreign policy legislation since the end of the Cold War.  Such a vote would relieve President Obama from using his veto pen to sustain the agreement. It would also, however, prevent the clarity that a vote brings.

As it stands now, there is a likely majority of the United States Senate and House of Representatives opposed to the Iran agreement. It is vital that there be a clear record of that vote. It is important that the American people, our European allies, Russia, China and the officials of the European Union know this is the case. It is important that our ally Israel know this is the case. It is especially important that the government of Iran know of this majority as its existence may send a message of some American resolve to enforce the agreement despite the obstacles it creates to American decisiveness.

That the Democrats would support a filibuster to prevent a vote is a bitter and ironic prospect for a political party whose members pride themselves on public accountability in the public sphere. As a number of commentators at The Wall Street Journal and Commentary have pointed out, the Democratic Party now “owns” the Iran deal. In months and years to come, it will have to assume responsibility for its consequences. In the short run, hopefully Cardin’s welcome decision may lead those remaining undeclared Democratic Senators to at least prevent their party from also having the responsibility for preventing a vote on the deal. So far, the White House and its advocates have avoided a serious engagement with the substance of criticism coming from this modest platform and from others in Washington with larger megaphones, extensive experience and engagement in these issues, most importantly Senator Menendez himself, and then informed critics outside the government such as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. .

Most of the Democrats in both the House and Senate have followed the talking points emanating from the White House, namely that the deal will prevent Iran from getting the bomb for 15 years and then, in gestures of worldly-wise exasperation with pesky and presumably uninformed critics, insist that war is the only alternative to a wonderful deal that supposedly prevents Iran from getting the bomb. Instead we have heard comments about the impact of donors, about our supposed inclinations for another war then softened with reassertions to Jewish leaders that the Administration continues to value the alliance with Israel. What has not happened is a public engagement with the deal’s critics who have pointed to serious problems in the agreement that the United States has signed.

The purpose of a filibuster is to prevent a vote but in so doing it also prevents full and open debate. A filibuster is an uninterrupted, one-way monologue that stands in the way of deliberation, that is, the give and take of debate about differing views on the floor of the United States Senate. In that sense, it frustrates one of the fundamental purpose of representative institutions. In seeking to prevent a vote, a filibuster would also prevent a majority of representatives from expressing their full criticisms of the Iran deal on the public record.

As I have argued in this blog/column this summer, the Iranians understand that the agreement gives them at least 24 days to delay and hide their nuclear activities. I think they could plausibly read it to allow them up to 50 additional days to hide violations and delay decisive enforcement of the agreement should the United States suspect they are violating it. They probably understand that plans for a research center at Fordow could be a splendid opportunity for espionage and transfer of nuclear knowledge to them. They must know that plans for the modernization of the nuclear reactor in Arak will create additional possibilities for transfer of knowledge and that both proposals create reinforce vested economic interests in Europe, Russia and China in favor of continuing the agreement and thus giving Iran the benefit of the doubt regarding possible violations.

The truth is that the deal’s requirement that “only” five of the eight signatories to the agreement are needed to set enforcement measures in motion rests on unrealistic optimism about the willingness of our European allies to support enforcement in the face of possible Iranian violations. In view of the European business interests in the survival of the Iran agreement, it is perfectly conceivable that, in the event of suspected violations, one or more of our European allies would vote with Russia, China and Iran and against the United States. Should that happen, no  the United States could only implement enforcement measures, whether they are “snap-back” of economic sanctions or a military strike in the face of considerable international opposition.

I made this case on July 28th in this blogpost. Yet, far as I know, no one supporting the JCPOA has bothered to address these criticisms.  In view of the importance I attributed to the mechanisms in the Iran deal that could deter American enforcement, it  is particularly important that on September 1st, Alex Burns wrote in the New York Times that “despite the continuing rancor on Capitol Hill, there was also growing recognition, even among some accord opponents, that the other nations — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, and especially Iran — would be unwilling to renegotiate the agreement even if Congress formally rejected it.”

Apparently the refusal of our European allies to consider renegotiating the agreement has been a factor in convincing some Democratic Senators that rejection of the deal now would isolate the United States. President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and supporters of the Iran deal tell us that Congressional rejection of this deal will leave the United States isolated and free Iran to race to the bomb. Yet the assertion by the European governments that they will not renegotiate the deal suggests that they may be reluctant to enforce the deal in the face of Iranian violations.

It’s crucial to remember that Iran’s two primary enemies, the two countries to whom its mobs bellow “death to…” are the United States and Israel. The mobs do not scream for “death” to China, Russia, France, and Germany and only infrequently include Britain in the ranks of those for whom it recommends extinction.  Only one of the countries that Iran has threatened, namely the United States, was at the negotiating table.  For reasons which have not been publicly explained, Israel was not included in the talks. So it is not at all surprising that these countries, which Iran has not directly threatened, would now tell American Senators that they will refuse to renegotiate this agreement. The proper response of American politicians to this refusal should have been be first, that it is not up to these other countries to define the national security policies of the United States and second, the fact that these other signers are now unwilling to renegotiate this agreement after its flaws have been exposed is further evidence that they would be unlikely to enforce the deal as their vested interests in Iran grow in the coming years.

I repeat the point I made in a previous blog/column: A fundamental truth about the Iran deal is the following: It is highly unlikely that it will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons over a period of 15 years. It is highly likely that Iran will cheat its path to the bomb much sooner than that. The structure of the deal works to isolate the United States and makes enforcement of its provisions highly unlikely. Therefore, if you support Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and believe that a nuclear Iran can be deterred and contained, it makes sense to support the deal. A careful reading of the text of the agreement makes clear that if you want to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb, this agreement is not the way to bring about that result.

For at least the past four years, our European allies did nothing while Russia and Iran armed and aided the regime of Hafez al-Assad as it killed over 200,000 Syrians.(The President also decided not to intervene when Assad crossed his own “red lines.”)  Now Europe is and will be preoccupied with its responsibilities toward the hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking safety from war and barbarism. The effort to absorb and integrate these refugees will be yet another challenge, on top of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, and the EU’s economic concerns in Greece and elsewhere. Our European allies will be fully preoccupied with themselves and thus not in the mood to support coercive diplomacy, renewed economic sanctions or, if they fail to prevent Iran from marching to the bomb, a US military strike. In this atmosphere, which is likely to continue in the coming years, the United States will probably be only one of the signers of the JCPOA with the will and the economic and military means to enforce the agreement.

In a democracy, elected representatives owe public accountability to voters, especially so in matters as grave as the Iran deal. President Obama is on the way to winning a political victory in a most unusual manner, namely with a minority of the votes of the members of Congress. The norms of democratic accountability require an up or down vote. Hopefully, other members of the Senate will recognize the wisdom of holding a vote and will defeat efforts to use a filibuster to prevent it.

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He has published extensively on modern German and European history including Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His "Israel's Moment: The United States and Europe between the Holocaust and the Cold War" is forthcoming.
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