WASHINGTON – Late in the evening on April 13, speaking to a meeting of about 55 senators, Secretary of State John Kerry argued against passage of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, claiming it would complicate negotiations. (The White House had already issued a veto threat.) At about 11:30 p.m., Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, challenged Kerry to explain how inspections would work under the just-announced nuclear framework agreement. Kerry fumbled his response. “He could not answer questions in this fundamental area,” recalls Corker. “At that moment, significant concerns emerged on both sides of the aisle.”
Shortly after midnight, the White House lifted its veto threat, not in a change of heart but as a concession to reality. The legislation had bipartisan, veto-proof support in the Senate. This has been the White House’s consistent political challenge: Its attempts to reassure have multiplied unease.
Now (it seems) we are about to see the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act in action. The law dangles an incentive for the Obama administration to conclude a final deal by July 9. If it meets that deadline and provides all the relevant documentation, Congress gets just 30 days to act on a resolution of disapproval. If the timing slips past July 9, Congress has 60 days to act.
To borrow a metaphor from another contemporary controversy, members of Congress and advocates have reached the “speak now or forever hold your peace” portion of the ceremony. Corker has sent a letter urging President Barack Obama to buck up in negotiations. An A-list group of diplomats and experts (including some former members of the Obama foreign policy team) has set out the minimal conditions for an acceptable deal.
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Days from the possible announcement, Corker remains open but is not encouraged. “All along the way,” he told me, “I’ve tried to be an honest broker. I’ve raised concerns, and think it has had an effect. But the current direction [of negotiations] is scary.” Members of Congress, he thinks, will be assessing whether the administration holds firm and secures agreement in several areas.
The first is inspections. Having abandoned the goals of preventing enrichment and of completely dismantling Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, the Obama administration, says Corker, has embarked on a policy of “managed proliferation.” The Iranian nuclear program will advance under international supervision designed to ensure that a breakout to nuclear weapons would take at least a year. This type of agreement – allowing some nuclear capabilities and achievements but not others – is more difficult to enforce. “The margin for error is vastly different,” says Corker. Spot inspections and access to military facilities are essential.
The second area is known as “possible military dimensions.” Iran must come clean about past nuclear research with military goals. Given that Iran will never admit it was trying to build a nuclear weapon, this is a sticky point. To do its work, the International Atomic Energy Agency needs to know what Iran has done in the past. And this requires the IAEA to have unfettered access to documents and scientists, in order to reconstruct Iran’s illicit program. Expert testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee was particularly insistent that accounting for past military dimensions is essential to prevent future breakouts.
Third is the manner in which sanctions are released – phased along with Iranian compliance, not granted in a lump sum, and automatically reimposed if Iran tries to game the system.
It is possible that the Obama administration will back away from an agreement that does not secure these and other important goals. But most members of Congress I’ve surveyed believe the administration has too much invested to say “no.” They expect a bad deal, accompanied by the argument that it is better than nothing.
That is not an obvious or easy determination. Down the path of “managed proliferation,” Iran will continue research and development on advanced centrifuges and ballistic missiles, continue to move (with international help) toward an industrialized nuclear program, and eventually (in perhaps a decade) arrive at immediate breakout capability with a strong economy that is funding terrorism and a bid for regional hegemony. This is the outcome if Iran doesn’t cheat.
The alternative – the long-term containment of Iran through both the threat of sanctions and the threat of force – is fraught with dangers and uncertainties as well. So members of Congress will face one of the hardest choices of their careers. And if the final stage of negotiations consists mainly of American concessions, the Obama administration may have another revolt on its hands.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.