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Political intervention in Iran negotiations harms chances for peace

REUTERS/Gary Cameron
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.

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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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 03/17/2015 - 08:14 am.

    “Political intervention in Iran negotiations harms chances for peace”

    I think that is their intent; Netanyahu and these 47 Republicans. No peace, in their time.

  2. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/17/2015 - 09:13 am.

    Preachin’ to the Choir

    This is a dangerous political ploy that may actually be designed to create a war. Even if not intentionally (though, I wouldn’t doubt it). The bumbling excuses might be a sign that these fools might have realized just how dangerous this is. Like “it was gonna snow and we wanted to leave” is a good excuse for signing a (practically treasonous) letter to a foreign leader. What they really did was follow Netanyahu’s orders, which actually is treasonous, and now they might just see the enormity of what they did. How is it that the American people elected so many senators with a collective political IQ in the negative numbers? More bravado than brains, I guess.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/17/2015 - 12:51 pm.

    Obama caused this problem

    by removing the sanctions before the negotiations even started. He waived whatever leverage the U.S. had by eliminating the very stranglehold he had on Iran’s economy.

    He could have told Iran we would tighten the sanctions if Iran did not demonstrate to the world that their nuclear weapons program was being shut down, and loosen them if they did.

    The letter was necessary as it became obvious that Obama just wanted a deal, any deal, in place before he leaves office. Remind me never to take any of you people when I buy my next car.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/17/2015 - 03:26 pm.


      When were sanctions lifted? Iranian assets that were frozen overseas were returned, and some sanctions were eased, in 2014. That was after negotiations started (negotiations started in 2011, but the relief came after progress was made towards an agreement).

      I wouldn’t go buying any cars, if I were you. Driving under the influence of ODS can be dangerous.

  4. Submitted by Bill Willy on 03/17/2015 - 06:02 pm.

    Why the drastic step?

    1) See “neoconservatives” in general, and “The Project for the New American Century” in particular.

    “The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) was a neoconservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. that focused on United States foreign policy. It was established in 1997 by William Kristol and Robert Kagan. The PNAC’s stated goal was ‘to promote American global leadership.’ The organization advocated the view that ‘American leadership is good both for America and for the world,’ and sought to build support for ‘a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity.’

    “Of the twenty-five people who signed the PNAC’s founding statement of principles, ten went on to serve in the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. Some observers have suggested that the PNAC played a key role in shaping the foreign policy of the Bush Administration, particularly in building support for the Iraq War.”

    2) See PNAC’s “policy paper,” entitled, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses”

    “PNAC’s policy document, ‘Rebuilding America’s Defences,’ OPENLY ADVOCATED FOR TOTAL GLOBAL MILITARY DOMINATION.”

    Summary and link to full (.pdf) document (published in September, 2000) located here:

    The Project for the New American Century’s web site disappeared (along with its “public pronouncement” of its philosophy, goals, the “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” document and, maybe most importantly, its highly visible listing of those who signed its “Founding statement of principles”: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Kristol, former Bush Jr., U.N. Ambassador, John Bolton, former Vice President Dan Quayle, former Bush Jr., Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett, and several other prominent conservatives) after the Iraq war started going badly.

    3) See the Foreign Policy Initiative

    The Foreign Policy Initiative (founded by William Kristol) is the “new incarnation” of the Project for the New American Century.

    4) See “The Republican Iran Letter Is the Perfect Neoconservative Fiasco” (excellent piece)

    5) See what it makes you think about the question of, “Why the drastic step?”

    And see if you see any similarities between what’s happening now (in Washington: Netanyahu’s speech; next day Tom Cotton letter; supportive and tough talking Republican heads) and what was happening shortly before the United States invaded Iraq to rid them of their weapons of mass destruction while keeping the world safe for democracy (and, as you may recall, rebuilding Iraq into a shining example of democracy in the middle of the Middle East).

    P.S. Speaking of former U.N. Ambassador, John Bolton, here’s a link to something he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, just yesterday, related to the U.N. Security Council’s power regarding any agreement that may be reached with Iran:

    “The Security Council can do nothing to limit America’s freedom to break from this agreement or take whatever action it deems necessary to protect itself.”

    Notice the phrase, “take whatever action it deems necessary to protect itself.”

    Protect itself? From what? All those weapons of mass destruction Iran is ready to unleash on us?

    Sound familiar? Ring any bells?

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