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The Iran Deal: Connecting the Dots

Last week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in Israel for meetings with Israel’s leaders and a summit with the Foreign Ministers of Israel and four Arab states. For public consumption, the purpose of the summit was to show a united front against common enemies, foremost among them Iran. But beneath the surface, Secretary Blinken came to reassure Israel and its other allies in the region of American support. Israel and the Arab countries made the point that concessions to Iran like the nuclear deal on the table are counterproductive. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, said it best. The way to stop our common enemies, “is not hesitation and being conciliatory; rather it is determination and strength.”

At his confirmation hearings in January 2021. Secretary Blinken spoke of his determination to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as part of a “longer and stronger” deal, which would eliminate sunset clauses and address the issues of Iran’s long-range missiles and its support for terrorism. Last week, Secretary Blinken reportedly told the Foreign Ministers that a deal with Iran is neither imminent nor certain. But he did say publicly that a return to JCPOA would be the best way to get Iran’s nuclear program “back in the box.”  But by newspaper accounts, the deal with Iran currently on the table with, would be much worse than the original JCPOA. It would put limits on Iran’s nuclear program that will expire within a few years while giving Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief that can and probably will be used to step up Iran’s attacks on Israel, the Gulf States and American interests throughout the world. It might even remove the designation of the Iranian Republican Guard Council (IRGC), the regimes main tool for promoting terrorism around the world, as a terrorist organization.

How did we go from seeking the “longer and stronger” deal, that Secretary Blinken described to a deal in which, in the words of the Russian envoy, “Iran got much more than it expected?” The answer may surprise you. Failure to meaningfully address the challenges of climate change and energy security due to political polarization in American society.

Before starting to explain, I want to share two points. There is no easy solution to the problem of a nuclear Iran. Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, is on Israel’s northern border with more than 100,000 rockets aimed at Israel. A strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would almost certainly lead to retaliation from Hezbollah, which would cause significant casualties and damage. Failure to reach an agreement to return to JCPOA would allow Iran to move ever closer to building a nuclear weapon, while continuing its malign activities. The deal currently on the table would only delay Iran’s nuclear program for a short time while providing more resources than ever to undermine the security of Israel, the United States, and the civilized world. The options before us are bad and worse.

The test of political decisions is whether they achieve the desired result. Decisions made with the best of intentions and the highest of principles can backfire if they bring about the exact opposite of what we are trying to achieve.

Three US Presidents got it wrong on Iran. While President George W. Bush got bogged down in protracted and ultimately unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran went about the business of building centrifuges and enriching uranium. Public opinion soured on involvement in the Middle East. The American public is not ready to go to war with Iran, which means that an American strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is not a realistic possibility. President Barack Obama united the world in imposing significant sanctions, which crippled the Iranian economy and forced Iran to come to the negotiating table. President Obama considered a potential Iranian nuclear weapon to be the most dangerous threat. Therefore, an agreement for Iran to roll back its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief should be the highest priority. He believed that billions of dollars in sanctions relief would be used to better the lives of the Iranian people. This would pave the way for future agreements on other issues leading to reconciliation between the United States and Iran.

Under the JCPOA of 2015, much of Iran’s enriched uranium was moved to Russia. The enriched uranium that remained in Iran was enriched to 3.67%, sufficient for nuclear power plants but way below the level needed for weapons. The deal was successful in getting Iran to roll back its nuclear program. But the agreement was only for 15 years, with certain key provisions set to expire even sooner. It did not address issues like Iran’s support for terrorism. The Iranians used the money from sanctions relief to step up its support for its terrorist proxies like Hezbollah.

President Donald Trump withdrew from JCPOA and imposed crippling sanctions, to force Iran to come to negotiate a better deal. The Iranian economy was devastated. Iran’s response was to ramp up its nuclear activity, enriching uranium to 60%, three times the level it was at when the original JCPOA was signed and within easy reach of the 90% needed for weaponization. The practical impact was that Iran has continued to be a negative force in the region while moving ever closer to nuclear weapons capability.

The Biden Administration came into office pledging to return to a “longer and stronger” JCPOA. Negotiations were held in Vienna, but the Iranians showed little interest in anything more then a return to the original JCPOA. Talks broke off in June. They resumed in November and went in a very different direction. Why did the talks resume in November and why did they move fairly quickly towards an agreement that would merely delay Iran’s nuclear program for a short time with key provisions expiring in 2025 in exchange for sanctions relief more extensive than those agreed to in 2015?

By November President Biden’s approval ratings had dropped significantly. The Democrats suffered significant losses in the off-year elections. A key factor was the highest levels of inflation in 40 years. Because gasoline prices tend to fluctuate significantly, higher prices at the pump are a symbol of high inflation. Energy prices impact virtually every sector of the economy from the cost of producing goods to the cost of delivery. To fight inflation, President Biden needed to get more oil on the market, and he needed to do it fast. In 2010, Iran exported 2.6 million barrels a day. When President Trump imposed new sanctions Iranian oil exports dropped to fewer than half a million barrels a day. They have since risen to about one million barrels a day, less than half of what they were at its peak. Bringing over a million barrels of Iranian oil a day onto the world market was the best prospect for bringing down energy prices and taming inflation. The only way to get those barrels on the market was to end sanctions with a new JCPOA. The Americans came to the table ready to make concessions. The Iranians returned to the table knowing they could get a better deal. The war in Ukraine, with its potential impact on the supply of Russian natural gas to Europe makes the need to bring more Iranian oil onto the market even more urgent.

By many accounts, the United States has the largest proven oil and natural gas reserves in the world. Why are we willing to make concessions to a terrorist regime like Iran when we could increase oil production in Texas?

Progressive supporters of the Green New Deal want to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions within ten years and decarbonize “the manufacturing, agricultural, and other industries” along with “transportation and other infrastructure.”  They effectively want to shut down the fossil fuel industry. Fighting climate change is the key issue for progressives. For President Biden to call for stepping up energy production in the United States would mean taking on the left wing in his own party. Making concessions to Iran to get Iranian oil onto the market is the easier way to go.

Climate change is real. We need to drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels and move towards renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. But the reality is for the time being, more than 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas. People are not willing to freeze in their homes, stop driving their cars, or shut down the economy. If oil and natural gas are not available in the United States it will be purchased elsewhere.

Russia makes $200 million a day selling oil and natural gas. Europe’s dependance on oil and natural gas prevented the world from acting when Putin occupied Crimea, launched uprisings in Donbas and occupied parts of Georgia. That is what emboldened Putin to believe that he could invade Ukraine with impunity. Our allies in Europe are still purchasing natural gas from Russia. It is the sale of natural gas that is financing Putin’s war machine. The people of Ukraine are paying the price for Europe’s dependance on Russian natural gas. It may, G-d forbid, be the people of Israel who will pay the price for the determination to end sanctions to bring Iranian oil onto the market.

I believe the vast majority of climate change activists are sincere and I agree with their long-term goals. But to handcuff the American energy industry does nothing to fight climate change. It does empower the likes of Vladimir Putin and the Iranian ayatollahs.

Many on the right claim that climate change is a “hoax.”  But the floods, wildfires and melting of ice caps caused by climate change are real. And the problems will get worse over time. The long-range solution to our environmental challenges is to move towards renewable energy. By reducing and eventually eliminating the need for fossil fuels from places like Iran and Russia, renewable energy can be part of the answer to our national security challenges as well. But pretending climate change does not exist prevents us from making the kind of investments in green technology that can end our reliance on fossil fuels.

The right wants to ignore climate change. The left wants to implement policies that can wreck the economy and seriously disrupt people’s lives. Between them they have prevented the implementation of meaningful policies for the responsible use of our abundant resources of the fossil fuels of today while researching and developing the renewable fuels of tomorrow. The result is the loss of jobs in the American energy industry, failure to address the challenges of climate change and a President willing to make dangerous concessions to the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism, Iran, to bring more oil onto the market.

Meeting the challenge of climate change is a long-range problem. The more immediate concern is the prospective US return to the JCPOA.

In 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waged a large-scale public campaign against the original deal. It included a speech to a joint session of the Republican controlled Congress. Prime Minister Netanyahu eloquently alerted the world to the danger of a nuclear Iran. His campaign to prevent the deal failed. It is the President who plays the lead role in foreign policy. Agreeing to address a joint session of the Republican Congress without informing the Democratic President was a major faux pas. Netanyahu’s behavior convinced the Administration that Netanyahu was out to undermine them, so they did not consult with him or seek his advice on what kind of agreement would be acceptable. People in our community who focused on attacking Obama’s character rather then the merits of his policies needlessly antagonized potential allies who admired Obama personally but questioned the merits of the JCPOA. Obama successfully made support of JCPOA a litmus test of support for the Democratic Party. A handful of courageous Democrats, including Senator Chuck Schumer and Congresswoman Grace Meng opposed JCPOA. But many usually dependable Democratic supporters of Israel came out in favor of JCPOA, killing any chance of stopping the deal in Congress.

This time around Israel and its supporters in Congress are taking a different approach. Prime Minister Naftali Bennet and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid have praised the Biden Administration’s commitment to Israel while criticizing specific portions of the deal. They wisely focused on Iran’s demand to remove the IRGC from the list of terrorist organizations. In their statement opposing the delisting of the IRGC, Prime Minister Bennet and Foreign Minister Lapid said. “The Revolutionary Guards are a terrorist organization that has murdered thousands of people including Americans. We have a hard time believing that the United States will remove it from the definition of a terrorist organization. We believe that the United States will or abandon its closest allies in exchange for empty promises from terrorists.”   By phrasing it that way, they appealed to the good will of President Biden in a way that is easy for people to understand, and which will make it much more difficult for the President to approve an agreement that includes delisting the IRGC.

In a letter to Secretary of State Blinken, 140 Members of Congress, 70 Democrats and 70 Republicans urged the Biden Administration to seek a “comprehensive” deal with Iran saying, “their nuclear program, their ballistic missile program, and their funding of terrorism must be addressed from the outset.”

12 Democrats and nine Republicans signed a letter to President Biden regarding the JCPOA saying “it would be hard to envision supporting an agreement along the lines being publicly discussed.”

If the 12 Democrats join the Republicans in opposing the deal, the House of Representatives will be able to pass a Resolution of Disapproval of the JCPOA. While passage of such a resolution would not kill the JCPOA, it would be highly embarrassing for the President to lose a vote on an important foreign policy issue in a House of Representatives controlled by his own party.

By using this approach, Israel and its supporters are making the fight over the JCPOA a debate on the merits of an agreement rather than a litmus test of loyalty to the Democratic Party. it sets the debate in terms that will make it politically difficult for the Administration to agree to a return to JCPOA.

There are signs that this approach may be working. President Biden sent Secretary of State Blinken to Israel and to the summit with four Arab foreign ministers to reassure them of American support, to listen to their concerns and to seek their input. A deal which was reported to be days away from being signed is now said by the State Department to be “neither imminent nor certain.”

As I write this, it is to soon to know how the situation will play out. By the time you read it we may have a much better idea.

The key question now is what can you do?

In the short term, the prospect of a Resolution of Disapproval in Congress is the best prospect for stopping a US return to the JCPOA. Contact your Senators and Representatives and tell them that a US return to the JCPOA, under the terms being reported by the press would do little to prevent the Iranians Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons while providing them with billions of dollars in sanction relief that will be used to endanger the security of the United States, Israel, and other US allies. For information on how to contact your Senator and Representatives go to https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm and https://www.house.gov/.

In the long term we need to develop an energy policy that will enable us to responsibly use America’s abundant resources of the fossil fuels of today while developing the renewable energy sources of tomorrow.

About the Author
Manny Behar is the Former Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council and was a senior aide to several public officials. He currently lives in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem
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