Americans have seen an extraordinary two-part spectacle in recent weeks. First, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, was invited to speak to a joint session of Congress and used the occasion to denounce an agreement our secretary of state has been trying to negotiate, together with other major powers, to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu’s appearance and passionate pleading was quickly followed by a letter signed by 47 Republican senators (and no Democrats) warning Iran that an executive agreement with President Barack Obama had little value, since it could be undone by Congress in two years. You need to deal with Republicans in Congress, the letter warned, making it clear that they would drive a harder bargain.
Anyone wishing to mark the time of death of the American tradition of politics stopping at the water’s edge need look no further. Whatever life was left in that time-honored practice has left the Capitol and our public policy. The tradition has been wounded before, but the latest ill-considered actions were a fatal blow to hopes for bipartisan cooperation on foreign policy during the remainder of the Obama presidency — and beyond.
Why the drastic step?
Were the senators moved to take this drastic step by the cogency of Netanyahu’s case? Not likely, since behind the pseudo-Churchillian rhetoric and references to Armageddon and the Holocaust, his argument came down to this: Iran’s is an evil regime that cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons and cannot be trusted. Therefore we should make no deal with them other than their surrender. President Ronald Reagan’s old, “trust but verify” principle for making deals with the “evil empire,” as he called the Soviet Union, no longer applies.
Netanyahu did not spell out to Congress any alternative way of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, though he has indicated repeatedly in the past that he believes military strikes against Iranian nuclear installations are the answer. Even granted that such attacks might succeed initially — no sure thing — Iran would not roll over and play dead. It would mean another Middle Eastern war, this with a country with 75 million people, huge oil reserves, and long borders with, among others, Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where American have invested much blood and treasure in the past 15 years.
To prevent such a disaster, the United States — under presidents of both parties — has pursued intensive diplomatic efforts over the years. We are not alone in this. The other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — China, Britain, France and Russia – are also engaged in these negotiations, as is Germany. All these countries agree that Iran should be allowed the means to nuclear power for peaceful purposes but not to make nuclear weapons. Some say this is a bit like trying to square a circle; certainly it is far easier said than done. The details are complex and esoteric.
The sanctions issue
To help persuade Iran to agree to an outcome that the other parties to the negotiation consider reasonable and enforceable, some tough economic and financial sanctions have been adopted, including by the United States. Congress has been considering some even stronger sanctions, but the Obama administration says such action now would only sabotage the deal that may be near, if still elusive. Iran, after all, is a proud, sovereign country unlikely to agree to anything that looks like capitulation or humiliation, though that does seem to be exactly what Netanyahu and his Senate backers have in mind.
By unilaterally inviting Netanyahu to speak in the august setting of the Capitol — and by sending such a provocative and unprecedented letter — the Republican-controlled Congress is trying to blow up any prospective deal, just as the Israeli leader advocated.
So far at least, Iran has brushed aside these interventions and remained at the negotiating table. We can only hope they stay there and that negotiators arrive at a peaceful solution to meet the essential interests of all the interested parties, Israel included. If that happens, it will be despite the recent congressional interference, not because of it.
Dick Virden is a retired senior foreign service officer. He lives in Plymouth.
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