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Congress can change the Iran equation

The Obama administration extended the interim P5+1 deal four months, but does anyone believe that 3 1/2 months from now Iran, with a little more cash in its coffers and months more of research on advanced centrifuges and its intercontinental ballistic missile program, will decide, hey, come to think of it, it should dismantle virtually all of its centrifuges? It’s preposterous because Iran is winning the negotiations.

Iran has gotten the West to lift some sanctions in exchange for small and reversible moves. It has extracted a sunset clause that envisions a day when Iran will be free from all inspections and restrictions on its nuclear program. The interim agreement seems to recognize if not a right to enrich then the West’s disinclination to halt all enrichment activities. Iran is playing a winning hand.

Moreover, Iran no longer fears that things will get worse if it doesn’t make a deal. After the first six months, the mullahs got another four months. So why not string this out a bit, they figure? And President Obama has taken Iran’s side on sanctions, for years trying to delay or water down sanctions and then to block conditional sanctions. Iran might not get full relief from sanctions (although the president may keep lifting some sanctions by executive order, his favored technique these days), but it may rightly calculate that sanctions won’t get worse.

And as for a military threat, with Obama crumbling in the face of a limited military strike against war-torn and much weaker Syria, what danger does Iran really face from the U.S. military? We have the capability, but not apparent will to act.

It’s not clear that the president wants to change the equation, but if he did, he’d change the cost-benefit analysis for Iran. That’s what the JINSA bipartisan task force (including former Obama adviser Dennis Ross) counsels. “The Obama Administration can undertake several mutually-reinforcing steps to bolster its leverage at the negotiating table: conditioning further sanctions relief on dramatic and verifiable rollback of Iran’s nuclear program; working more closely with Congress on negotiating and implementing a final deal; augmenting the credibility of both the U.S. and Israeli military options; improving dialogue with regional allies; and interdicting clandestine Iranian arms exports,” the report advises.

There has been much debate and discussion about working with Congress to pass sanctions, but what about increasing the military threat? JINSA reports:

This could include Congressional hearings on the feasibility of the U.S. military option. It could also include statements that: highlight, rather than repeatedly downplay, the viability of the military option; publicly support the right of U.S. allies to defend themselves if an acceptable deal is not reached; and publicize advanced U.S. military capabilities, including the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) bunker buster designed specifically to neutralize targets like Iran’s deeply-buried illegal nuclear facilities. Deployments or exercises could reinforce this message of readiness, similar to when the United States responded to North Korean nuclear threats by flying B-52 strategic bombers over the southern half of the Korean peninsula in March 2013.

This would be sound advice in any other administration, but in all likelihood Obama will rule out any “provocative” moves (that’s how he views moves that are actually deterrents). Moreover, even if he did all this (exceptionally unlikely), who would believe that he would go the next step and actually use force?

Well, then there is Israel. Here, I think, is fertile ground. Israel has proved its military will and prowess. It was the one country to actually use military action to prevent Syria from transferring arms to Hezbollah. And its prime minister has overwhelming support on national security measures from a country prepared to endure war in the interests of self-preservation. JINSA proposes:

[T]he United States could generate additional leverage by transferring MOP bunker busters to Israel. Because Israel currently lacks aircraft to carry the MOP, the United States would need to transfer an appropriate delivery capability as well. There are no legal or policy limitations to such a transfer and the United States has previously recognized the importance of a credible Israeli military option by calling for the delivery of aerial refueling tankers and smaller bunker busters in 2012.

This would reinforce diplomatic efforts in two ways. First, by sending an unmistakable signal that Israel has the ability – on top of the will – to execute a military strike, it would increase Tehran’s concerns about what could happen if no acceptable deal is reached. Second, it would bolster the U.S. position at the negotiating table by communicating preparedness to consider other options if diplomacy goes nowhere. Moreover, this is legislation the Congress could initiate. About the only thing it can agree upon is military support for Israel (hence the quick passage of Iron Dome funding).

Other measures, such as coordinating with regional allies and interdicting Iranian weapons shipments, require executive action. In oversight hearings, Congress can grill administration officials on what actions are being taken and try to persuade them to act more robustly. But until a new Congress arrives (specifically a new Senate majority leader who does not block sanctions), passage of a military package for Israel might be the best use of Congress’s time. Would Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) block that as well? Perhaps, although voting against a military aid package for Israel would be hugely unpopular and a difficult vote for his members. Would Obama veto it? Perhaps, but the threat of a humiliating veto override or backlash from another anti-Israel move might be hard for the administration to stomach.

None of this is very satisfying, for when a president refuses to lead and lacks strategic common sense, it is hard indeed to fill the void. But Congress can try, and it should. By the way — what does Hillary Clinton think about negotiating with Iran absent new leverage?




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