Originally published in Reuters
By J. Bennett Johnston and Richard Lugar
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a key voice in the Democratic Party leadership, has announced that he will not support the international agreement designed to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. We realize that all senators must balance their concerns about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action against the consequences for the United States if Washington rejects it. We just do not agree with how the senator balances up the account. Here’s why:
Schumer’s explanation did not go into his views on the consequences of rejection. He says he will vote against the deal not because he believes “war is a viable option” or “to challenge the path of diplomacy.” Instead, his reasoning is based on his belief that “Iran will not change.” The deal, however, is not about trusting Iran, changing its regime or even avoiding war. It is about preventing Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon.
Schumer’s alternative to the agreement is to “keep U.S. sanctions in place, strengthen them, enforce secondary sanctions on other nations and pursue the hard-trodden path of diplomacy once more.”
He does not explain how his strategy would be accomplished without the support of Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany, the other parties to the deal besides the United States and Iran. He also does not address the consequences if Washington fails to honor its commitment to a multilateral agreement negotiated over 18 months.
Rejection of the agreement would severely undermine the U.S. role as a leader and reliable partner around the globe. If Washington walks away from this hard-fought multilateral agreement, its dependability would likely be doubted for decades.
Rejection would also destroy the effective coalition that brought Iran to the negotiating table. China and Russia would likely resume trade with Iran. U.S. allies, unsettled by Washington’s behavior, would move their own separate ways.
The other five negotiators would likely have little stomach for going back to Iran “for a better deal.” The ambassadors of the five countries recently assured members of Congress that their governments would not return to the negotiating table should Washington reject the agreement.
Future sanctions would then have to be largely unilateral U.S. efforts — and less effective. There would be no coalition standing by to restore sanctions or apply other pressures if Iran did not comply. It would also be difficult to develop joint forceful action against Iran should it decide to go for a nuclear weapon.
Schumer’s suggestion that the United States “impose secondary sanctions on other nations” would likely be challenged by Washington’s friends and allies. It could rapidly lead to alternative financial arrangements disadvantageous to America over the long term. A U.S. policy of extending unilateral sanctions to other nations that had agreed to lift them on Iran would also risk damaging the power and influence of the U.S. Treasury.
Tehran would be the winner of this U.S. rejection because it would achieve its major objective: the lifting of most sanctions without being required to accept constraints on its nuclear program. Iran could also claim to be a victim of American perfidy and try to convince other nations to break with U.S. leadership and with the entire international sanctions regime.
Meanwhile, Israel would be the loser, as Iran would resume its nuclear program without inspections and would garner support from other nations around the world. Ninety countries, including Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, have already supported the deal. Though Israel opposes it, many key Israelis do not, including retired senior generals and a former Mossad leader.
The history of Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear program without constraints is instructive. From 2005 to 2013, Iran rocketed from about 200 installed centrifuges to 20,000, while Washington sought to stop them through sanctions. Unrestrained by the joint nuclear agreement, Iran could quickly resume its aggressive nuclear program: move from 20,000 to 200,000 installed centrifuges, resume enriching uranium to 20 percent in its deeply buried facility, finish its plutonium reactor and develop reprocessing.
Vindicated in his distrust of the United States, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would no longer have any incentive to negotiate. The much flaunted and powerful Iranian “hard-liners” would likely return to dominate national politics and push President Hassan Rouhani’s more centrist team aside permanently. A return to the “hard-trodden path of diplomacy,” as Schumer proposes, would have to be conducted without Iran and its six negotiating parties.
The scuttling of the agreement could also put the United States on a path to another war in the Middle East. The uncertainty about the restored, unrestrained Iranian nuclear program would rapidly become an unacceptable mystery. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors would find the unprecedented inspections program of the Iran nuclear agreement foregone, probably forever.
The hair-on-fire spiral from fears of Iranian intentions would lead again — as in 2012 and 2013 — to demands for military action. As uncertainty mounted, Israel might again find it necessary to attack Iran and expect U.S. support.
Paradoxically, full U.S. military action against Iran would achieve only a three- to five-year delay in an Iranian surge toward a bomb, while the international nuclear deal would allow 15 years to test whether the agreement was on track to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. An Israel-U.S. military attack would more than likely assure a decision by Iran to move rapidly for a nuclear weapon, a decision it has not yet taken, according the director of U.S. national intelligence.
Within a month, Congress will face a momentous decision to kill this last chance for Washington to reach a verifiable Iranian commitment not to build a nuclear weapon. Congress can either accept or reject it by overriding an expected presidential veto — thereby taking sole and exclusive responsibility for the grave consequences for U.S. national security that would certainly follow.