An update on arms control, national security & politics from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
After the Republican-controlled House and Senate passed budget resolutions with massive off-budget increases for defense, it’s clear Congress is under the illusion that it’s carrying a Birkin bag with a black Amex inside a Prada wallet.
Yesterday, international negotiators announced the parameters of a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); that is, the framework for an agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered quite possibly the best campaign speech of his career last Tuesday. In his much-anticipated and divisive address before Congress, Bibi used high-level fear mongering to campaign against the ongoing negotiations with Iran, and for his own reelection. In his denigration of the current diplomatic efforts, though, the Prime Minister failed, as President Obama put it, to offer any “viable alternatives” to the deal that is currently being negotiated.
Netanyahu did, however, insist on an illusory “better deal.” In fact, he brought up this “better deal” seven times throughout his speech – not once elaborating on the logistics or even the specifics of what an alternative deal would look like.
That’s because a “better deal” is fantasy.
Netanyahu might as well have gone to the zoo and asked to see the unicorns. Even more, insisted to see the unicorns. Of course everyone at the zoo would love to see the unicorns. But just like a “better deal,” unicorns don’t exist.
Bibi had two major qualms with the deal currently being negotiated: that it “would leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure, providing it with a short break-out time to the bomb” and that “virtually all the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would automatically expire in about a decade.”
Of course permanently destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would be ideal. But experts agree: it’s unrealistic to expect Iran to demolish its nuclear program entirely or accept a deal that is indefinite as part of any diplomatic deal.
That Netanyahu qualified a 12-month break-out time as “short” is also curious, considering his 2012 speech to the United Nations General Assembly in which he says, “The red line should be drawn right here…before Iran gets to the point where it’s a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.” Netanyahu’s personal goalpost has moved from a few months to a whole year, and still this doesn’t seem to be long enough.
What’s more, according to Brookings Institutions Senior Fellow and U.S. delegate to the Iran negotiations from 2009-2013 Robert Einhorn, “a break out time of one year is more than enough time to exhaust diplomatic efforts and economic pressures before turning, if necessary, to military force.”
As for the duration of the deal, as Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes put it, a double-digit sunset clause “should not be read as some type of preemptive permission slip for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon on the back end of this agreement. The fact of the matter is the same type of options that we have in place today to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will be available to the president of the United States in 10, 15 years—whenever the conclusion of the duration of the deal is.”
But Netanyahu’s speech to Congress isn’t the only obstacle to a deal that would ensure Iran does not get a nuclear weapon. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decided to fast-track Senator Corker’s (R-Tenn.) legislation that would require Congress to give an up or down vote on any potential deal. In response, nine Senate Democrats and one Independent, many of whom are co-sponsors of the legislation, wrote McConnell to say they would not vote for the bill if it comes to the floor before March 24th – the somewhat shaky date set for a political framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Last Thursday, McConnell capitulated and decided to postpone the vote that likely would have faced a democratic filibuster.
No one, on either side of the debate, wants to see a nuclear-armed Iran. But unfortunately, unicorns still don’t exist. In failing to provide a “viable alternative,” Netanyahu proved that the best chance for keeping Iran from the bomb is the deal currently being negotiated.
In his controversial and highly anticipated address before Congress today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered quite possibly the best campaign speech of his career — engaging in high-level fear mongering in an effort to thwart diplomatic efforts between the U.S., its allies, and Iran, on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. The problem? That’s all he seemed to do.
As Netanyahu put it in his speech to American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) yesterday, “Israel and the United States agree that Iran should not have nuclear weapons, but we disagree on the best way to prevent Iran from developing those weapons.”
The administration sees diplomacy as the best way to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. But there’s no room for negotiations within Netanyahu’s maximalist stance.
While Netanyahu proved to be a savvy wordsmith, unfortunately he didn’t offer any substantive alternatives to a deal.
As can only be expected in a moment like this, the twittersphere was quick to react. Below is a snapshot of twitter’s immediate response:
Karim Sadjadpour @ksadjadpour · Iran’s hardliners have always thrived in isolation. Continued political and economic isolation is a carrot for them not a stick.
EJ Dionne @EJDionne · I want to hear #Bibi #Netanyahu lay out what is the alternative to a deal.
Meir Javedanfar @MeirJa ·As a recovering Likudnik (I supported the party until 1996) this is a 24 carat Likud speech. Bringing up fears and insecurities all time
Jeffrey Goldberg ?@JeffreyGoldberg · So, what’s Bibi’s suggestion for a negotiating strategy?
Ram Ramgopal @RamCNN · Senior admin official says re Netenyahu speech: “Literally, not one new idea; not one single concrete alternative; all rhetoric, no action”
Suzanne Maloney @MaloneySuzanne · Paints advocates of deal as naive re: prospects for Iranian moderation… but still provides no credible alternative #NetanyahuSpeech
James Fallows @JamesFallows · If you believe Iran is functional equivalent of Nazi Germany, then pre-WW II analogies all apply. If not, not.
Laura Rozen @lrozen · Netanyahu convincing he does not like #Iran deal. Utterly unconvincing that the alternative offers more security
Rep. Earl Blumenauer @repblumenauer · Iran will always be America’s enemy???? not what many Iranians feel or want….or what America has to accept.
Rep. Peter Welch @PeterWelch · 3/4 With this speech, @Netanyahu has made the decision to undermine delicate negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program #NetanyahuSpeech
And, because we were wondering too…
Hayes Brown @HayesBrown – Why has nobody photoshopped Bibi as the Mother of Dragons yet?
Follow Nukes of Hazard on Twitter for more updates on the Iran nuclear negotiations.
Last week, the president unveiled the largest defense base budget request in the history of the Pentagon, blowing right past the sequestration caps. This can only mean one thing: tough choices lie ahead for Congress.
That’s why we didn’t waste any time getting up to Capitol Hill to help Congress weigh those difficult decisions and begin the unenviable task of trimming down the president’s request. On Thursday February 5, we at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation hosted our annual briefings in the House of Representatives and in the Senate to recommend smart cuts that would improve our national security and reap enormous savings.
In both briefings, we had a dynamic panel of speakers from across the political spectrum, as well as a full, engaged audience. Center executive director Angela Canterbury kicked things off as moderator, followed by the Center’s policy director Laicie Heeley, who presented her annual Defense Budget Briefing Book (available on our website). We were fortunate enough to also feature William Hartung, Director of the Common Defense Campaign at the Center for International Policy, and Pete Sepp, President of the National Taxpayers Union, a fiscally conservative organization dedicated to working for lower taxes and smaller government.
Watch a short clip of our House briefing:
Watch a short clip of our Senate briefing, in which Laicie Heeley discusses the president’s request and the Overseas Contingency Operations account:
Stay tuned for more as we try to inform Congress and work with them where we can to rein in profligate spending at the Pentagon. As Center Chairman Lt. Gen. Gard put it, “Priorities must be established to limit defense expenditures in order to provide adequate investments in essential non-military aspects of our national strength.”
As negotiations to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran hang in the balance, former Congressman from Kansas Jim Slattery sat down with Barbara Slavin, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, to discuss Slattery’s recent trip to Tehran and his perspective of the current negations with a focus on the person-to-person aspect of the U.S.-Iran relationship. His insights provide a valuable glimpse into the atmosphere on the ground in Iran at this critical time.
In the current negotiations between the U.S., its P5+1 allies (Russia, France, Britain, China and Germany) and Iran, many are focused on the technical specificities of a possible deal to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. While some dwell on the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to maintain or whether its breakout time (the time it would take for Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb) is six months or six years, ultimately the outcome of the negotiations is dependent on the negotiators themselves. However, the lack of trust and personal relationships between political influencers from the U.S. and Iran are an often overlooked aspect of the way the public perceives the current negotiations.
In December 2014, the former Congressman was invited to Iran for what was, according to Slattery, the first time an American lawmaker had been invited on such a trip since the 1979 Iranian revolution. For the past ten years, Slattery has been involved in the Abrahamic dialogue, an initiative affiliated with Catholic University intended to promote communication between Christians and Muslims. “[Slattery], like Eisenhower, believe very strongly in people-to-people diplomacy; people getting to know each other and building relationships.”
Slattery advised that “one of the great problems we have to overcome right now is ignorance” adding, “it is amazing to me when I have conversations with members of Congress just how little they know about Iran.”
Breaking down the barrier of ignorance is vital to successful negotiations. How can lawmakers be expected to make objective decisions when many of them are uncomfortable with the idea of negotiating with Iran in the first place?
In a recent Senate Foreign Relations hearing on the Iran nuclear negotiations, Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., characterized Iran as “a country led by a person who wants there to be a cataclysmic showdown between the Muslim and non-Muslim world” adding that, “they reject everything that’s not Islamic in the world.” Understanding the Iranian people beyond many orientalist stereotypes fossilized in the average American’s (or average lawmaker’s) understanding of the Muslim world would, if anything, warm them up to the idea of the negotiating with Iran.
It is easy to be critical of the negotiations. It is much harder to negotiate a good deal. Mutual respect and understanding for the other side’s perspective is integral to the negotiating process.
Of course, travel between the countries has been, and remains difficult. Slattery hopes more opportunities for exchange will emerge, and in ways that would allow members of Congress to engage with their counterparts in the Iranian Parliament on a personal level.
“We have a historic moment right now”
On the topic of how the U.S.-Israel relationship might affect current talks, Slattery cautioned against letting domestic politics stifle the negotiations, stating that “we have a historic moment right now” to make a deal to ensure Iran does not get the bomb.
“If we got this deal on the nuclear question, it would reduce, hopefully, the anxiety and legitimate fear that many in Israel have about the prospect of a nuclear Iran,” said Slattery. He asserted that a stronger relationship between Iran and the U.S. could open doors to increased dialogue on regional issues such as Hezbollah or Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to address Congress in March at the request of Senator John Boehner, R-Ohio, who did not consult the White House before extending the invitation. Netanyahu, who opposes the negotiations, will lobby Congress to increase sanctions on Iran. During Monday’s event at the Atlantic Council, Slattery posed a question for Netanyahu: “What happens if we fail?” Noting the “very dangerous consequences” of not seizing the opportunity to make a deal while it’s on the table.
Several members of Congress are undecided on whether or not they will attend the speech. Senator Dick Durban, D-Ill., said, “Colleagues of mine are very concerned about [the speech] and I’m troubled by it.” Adding, “It’s a serious mistake by the speaker and the prime minister.”
Angela Canterbury, Executive Director of the Council and Center, asked Slattery the million-dollar question: “I wanted to ask you about the effect you think the invitation to Bibi Netanyahu to come address the Congress is having, and, if you were in Congress today, would you attend?” Slattery responded, “If I had to decide today I would not attend the speech because I believe that his coming here at this time is showing disrespect to the office of the president,” suggesting that if Netanyahu will address Congress, perhaps an Iranian official, such as Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, should come testify before Congress, too.
Slattery ended with an open-ended question that epitomized the event: “Why are we afraid of information? Why are we afraid to talk to people and learn from them?”
The U.S. and other world powers, collectively known as the P5+1, are on the brink of making a historic deal to ensure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear bomb. Members of Congress are choosing sides now between allowing the diplomatic talks to continue to progress and taking action that could derail the talks.
Senate champions of diplomacy Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chris Murphy (D-CT) and nine of their colleagues are offering a resolution in strong support of the ongoing negotiations between the US and our P5+1 partners to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Diplomacy skeptics Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), on the other hand, are attempting to garner support for draft legislation that would at best undermine U.S. diplomatic efforts, and at worst, lead the U.S. into another war in the Middle East. President Obama has threatened to veto such legislation, and British Prime Minister David Cameron and various high-ranking foreign ministers officials have voiced their opposition as well.
Yesterday, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and its sister advocacy organization Council for a Livable World sent a letter to senators providing an analysis of the draft Menendez-Kirk legislation and opposing it—or any congressional action—that might undermine negotiations or reverse the progress that’s already been made under the interim deal.
Later in day yesterday, the Feinstein-Murphy pro-diplomacy resolution was introduced. The Council and Center released the following statement from Executive Director Angela Canterbury:
This resolution is a strong declaration of support for diplomacy, and also makes it clear that if negotiations do not work, the Senate is prepared to act. We are pleased to endorse this resolution and applaud these Senators for their efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. We expect our negotiating partners will welcome this sensible measure to strengthen our hand with Iran in diplomatic talks. Meanwhile, other members of Congress have proposed legislation that would derail diplomacy, allowing Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, and hurling us into another war in the Middle East.
Read the letter opposing the draft “Nuclear Weapons Free Iran act of 2015 here.
Read the press statement in support of the Feinstein-Murphy resolution to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran here.
President Obama’s ardent opposition to new congressional trigger sanctions on Iran is making headlines. In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Obama stated:
“[S]anctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails – alienating America from its allies; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again. It doesn’t make sense. That is why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress. The American people expect us to only go to war as a last resort, and I intend to stay true to that wisdom.”
Congress, on the other hand, specifically Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN), are at odds with the president and his administration. In Wednesday’s committee hearing, Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Status of Talks and the Role of Congress, Senators Corker and Mendez made their cases for their respective proposed legislation: Corker insisted that Congress get a final up or down say on whatever agreement is made by the P5+1 and Iran. Menendez, as captain of team-new sanctions, was emphatic about implementing hard-and-fast trigger sanctions if negotiators are unable to reach a deal with Iran.
Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen testified at the hearing on behalf of their administration.
Senator Menendez was the only member to come out in strong support of new sanctions legislation, perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the flurry of opposition against new sanctions that came out this week: former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and representatives from our international partners at the negotiating table, have all publicly opposed new sanctions in an effort to give diplomacy a chance.
Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) all spoke out against the need for new sanctions. Senator Flake succinctly summarized the issue stating, “…I’m confused by the notion that some would want to impose additional sanction while negotiations are going on recognizing and stating that the purpose of sanctions is to bring people to the negotiating table.”
With regards to Senator Corker’s proposed legislation, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) asked the million-dollar question: what happens if “our partners have consented to [a deal] and the administration has consented to [a deal] but Congress rejects [it]?”
Secretary Blinken reaffirmed the importance of this question and reminded the committee that, “we’re not the only ones who have a vote in this. It is our partners, who are critical to sustaining and, if it comes to that, actually increasing sanctions.”
At a different moment during the hearing, Secretary Blinken reminded the committee that had Congress been asked to vote on the Joint Plan of Action within the first month of inception, it probably wouldn’t have passed.
Senator Murphy also pointed out the “longstanding precedent on what constitutes a treaty requiring the U.S. Congress to weigh in and what constitutes a non-treaty obligation entered into by the executive.” “I think it’s’ important for us to understand the difference between the two,” he added.
With significant pushback against the ‘trigger’ sanctions legislation proposed by Menendez amongst committee members, it is unlikely that new sanctions against Iran would do well in a vote.
Committee members who spoke out against the administration spoke as if the president is the mean popular kid who is intentionally excluding Congress from the playground game. But how can the administration engage 535 members of Congress in high-level, high-stakes diplomatic negotiations? Perhaps the big picture—how the P5+1 and the negotiating team can best get to a good deal—is bigger than Congress’ hurt feelings.
The United States is headed for trouble, according to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, in his recent article “War, hot or cold?” The crux of the issue: the U.S. is balancing military spending for two non-complementary styles of war. On the one hand, the U.S. is developing its intelligence and armed forces to fight a “hot war” against terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State; on the other, the U.S. is developing costly weapons programs to ensure superiority in a Cold-War-style standoff with Russia and China. As Pincus is concerned, funding both styles may not be practical or affordable, meaning “Americans have some tough choices ahead.”
“These days, terrorists are the first threat,” says Pincus, “and not a single one will be deterred by a nuclear warhead.” We couldn’t agree more—in fact, nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists are the first threat. Pincus goes further, and agrees with the Center’s analysis that: “It seems wasteful to spend that kind of money re-creating a vast nuclear force that has never been used, on a scale that was likely never needed.”
Both the “hot” and the “cold” strategies are considerably expensive. In fiscal year 2014 alone, the military consumed $526.8 billion in discretionary base spending and an additional $80 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations account, originally designed to accommodate the fluctuating budget needs of U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now it’s used more often as a slush fund, with Pentagon requests including the outlandishly expensive and malfunction-plagued F-35 fighter program, which will cost $1.5 trillion over the program’s life cycle and on average $178 million to produce each plane. And don’t forget the nuclear modernization plan that could cost $1 trillion dollars over the next 3 decades.
One strategy alone makes for a tight budget; funding both “hot war” operations and “cold war” posturing in the long term is not only unsustainable—it’s unnecessary. We don’t need to maintain a trillion dollar plan for nuclear weapons in order to deter Russia or China. In fact, the spending level and prioritization play right into their hands.
To read Pincus’s full article, click here.