Is the tide turning against President Obama’s purported nuclear weapons deal with Iran? One sign that the answer is yes is the devastating opinion article in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz.
The architect of Richard Nixon’s opening to China and the partner of Ronald Reagan in his negotiations with the Soviet Union are diplomatic in their criticisms. They pay passing tribute to their successor John Kerry’s “persistence, patience and ingenuity.” But they have many disturbing questions — I count 16 question marks in the article — about the deal.
Certainly it falls far short of what Obama himself cited as minimum requirements as recently as December 2013. The Fordow underground facility will not be eliminated; the heavy water Arak reactor won’t be closed down; and Iran will be allowed thousands of centrifuges unnecessary for any peaceful nuclear power program.
American negotiators did obtain a few concessions. Enrichment will be confined to one facility, and within certain limits, the enriched stockpile will be reduced. But are even those parts of the deal enforceable?
There also remain questions of just what was agreed on. The Obama administration’s “key parameters” statement says that Iran needs to meet benchmarks before sanctions are lifted. The Iranians put out a paper saying that sanctions will end immediately.
Obama took the rare step of summoning the usually sympathetic New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to a Saturday interview at the White House. Obama admitted that “there are a lot of details to be worked out, and you could see backtracking and slippage and real political difficulties, both in Iran and obviously here in the United States Congress.”
Speaking more generally, he said, “If in fact we can resolve these issues diplomatically, we are more likely to be safe, more likely to be secure, in a better position to protect our allies, and who knows? Iran may change.” The nuclear negotiations, he said, are “this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
That suggests that Obama believes no future president would approve such a deal — which is plausible, given the public’s skepticism and the doubts of experts that it can be effectively enforced against a hostile regime with a record of cheating and concealment.
For example, former International Atomic Energy Association official Olli Heinonen, a Finnish citizen now at Harvard, argues that Obama’s contemplated inspection scheme is unlikely to work. Even the IAEA’s more stringent system with unscheduled inspections in Iraq was foiled, he says. He doubts that Obama’s inspection regime will give us the promised one-year notice of an Iranian breakout to nuclear weapons production.
Doubts remain as well whether sanctions could be “snapped back” in case of violations as rapidly as Obama suggested in the Friedman interview. Would Russia and China veto a snapback of United Nations resolutions in the Security Council? “A lot of people, myself included, will want to see the fine print on that,” Friedman writes.
Kissinger and Schultz have similar doubts as well. So, evidently, does Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. He has announced he will “strongly” back legislation sponsored by Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., requiring that Congress vote on any Iran deal.
Schumer is the heir presumptive to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. With his support there could well be a veto-proof majority in the Senate as well as the House. And if he’s opposed, it’s highly unlikely that Congress will vote to repeal current U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Obama still insists he can act without congressional approval. He has acted all along on that assumption, not taking congressional leaders into his confidence even as his foreign policy advisers held more meetings on Iran than any other subject in his first term. (Perhaps someone should ask Hillary Clinton about this.)
Presidents can do much in foreign policy without Congress, but there are limits. Woodrow Wilson refused to consult Congress on the Versailles treaty and still got 55 of the required 64 Senate votes. Obama is currently hustling to hold together the 34 votes needed to sustain a veto.
Obama’s pursuit of a grand bargain with Iran seems premised on a hope that it will change the character of the regime. That would indeed be welcome. But few American voters, politicians or foreign policy experts seem confident that will happen in the 10 years after which, according to the deal, limits on Iran expire. The deal is in trouble.