THOMAS HEDGES, TRNN PRODUCER: As the November midterm election campaigns intensify, prospects of a Republican majority in the Senate are growing stronger. Forecasts are varied among major news sources, but only in their margin of victory. Just this week, The New York Times predicted a 64 percent likely win; The Washington Post, 93 percent. The House is already under Republican control and most likely going to stay that way after the elections next month. Many are bracing themselves for a new kind of political theater, one in which the GOP's voice will be significantly amplified.
This is the first of a string of reports coming from The Real News Network that will take a look at how a Republican-led Senate would affect current policies. The lens for each issue takes the form of Senate committees, political platforms that will undergo major reconfigurations if Republicans seize the Senate.
In this edition, we'll focus on the arena of foreign policy and, more specifically, the U.S. negotiations with Iran, which for many seem to be the most susceptible to change of course if the GOP does indeed win over the Senate. With the deadline for an agreement set for the end of November, a lot hinges on the developments over the next month that'll conclude a year-long round of talks.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: If you phrase the question where are you going to see a change because of the Republicans, then I think Iran is going to be one of the biggest issues, at least in your face, immediately, in the short term.
HEDGES: Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired army colonel and former chief of staff to Colin Powell. He says a Republican victory in the Senate jeopardizes the progress already made in the negotiations.
WILKERSON: Now, there are people in my party and people in the Democratic Party, like Robert Menendez in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee right now, who are opposed to this for differing reasons. And this will give the Senate, which is arguably the more powerful body of the Congress with respect to these kinds of agreements, more reason and more people and more wherewithal to oppose the president on these issues.
HEDGES: The current phase of negotiations began last November when the United States and Iran, along with the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, often called P5+1, agreed to a preliminary and temporary nuclear deal. The initial agreement would ask Iran to roll back its nuclear program in exchange for a piecemeal removal of sanctions against the country.
KATE GOULD, MIDDLE EAST POLICY ANALYST, FRIENDS COUNCIL ON NATIONAL LEGISLATION: Within the U.S. sanctions, there are those that have been imposed by the president and those that have been imposed by Congress. And in the congressional sanctions, many of these sanctions--in fact, most of them--allow for the president to suspend sanctions against Iran for a certain amount of time.
HEDGES: Kate Gould is a Middle East policy analyst at the Friends Council on National Legislation. She argues that the uproar over the negotiations between Congress and the White House is an unnecessary source of tension.
GOULD: When they authored these sanctions, they allowed for the president to lift sanctions. And now that the president is talking about possibly using that legal authority, then some in Congress are objecting to that. But it was actually in the legislation that they authored and they voted for.
smokeMany of these waivers the president's allowed to use, these are temporary waivers. They may last for six months; they may last longer. They could be renewed after six months. They could renew it again. But for an actual permanent lifting of sanctions, that's something that only Congress can do.
So it is expected that in any kind of final nuclear deal, for the first two years of an agreement, the president would lift sanctions, would suspend sanctions for a temporary amount of time to make sure that Iran is complying with the deal. And then, about two years in, Congress would be asked to then lift sanctions permanently. And in exchange, Iran would have to make even further concessions on their nuclear program.
HEDGES: As of today, Gould says, the opposition to a deal with Iran reflects a minority voice within Congress. Only a couple of dozen representatives, she says, are actively resisting the negotiations. But if the GOP does win, the ascension of Republican members to key positions within certain Senate committees threatens the current path to an agreement.
WILKERSON: Yeah, the committee structure, in terms of the midterms, if the Republicans win a majority in the Senate (it'll probably be a small one) will be a problem for the president, because we have some people who will be going to the committee chairmanships, maybe even John McCain in Senate Armed Services, who's contesting the rule that you can't serve after having served six years before. And that's going to change what the committees deal with. It's going to change how they deal with what they deal with. And it's going to change it in a way that's probably going to be antithetical to the president's wishes. So, yes, it's going to have an impact.
HEDGES: That impact could be seen in two other committees, the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, committees that deal most closely with the U.S.-Iran negotiations.
GOULD: Most people don't think about the Banking Committee, but that actually is the committee where they have jurisdiction over sanctions legislation. It affects banks, of course.
HEDGES: With Senate Democrat and current chair of the Committee on Banking Tim Johnson set to step down at the end of this year, the change in committee leadership could see its Republican ranking member, Mike Crapo, take up the position. While Crapo doesn't hold such a hardline approach as his constituents, his moderate stance and acceptance of renewed Iran sanctions stand opposed to the more progressive measures Johnson has taken. For example, earlier this year, Senator Johnson played a key role in organizing ten chairs of separate Senate committees to sign on to a letter opposing any new sanctions against Iran. In the wake of a Republican victory, Gould predicts a similar move against the negotiations in the Committee on Foreign Relations.
GOULD: Currently it's chaired by Senator Robert Menendez, and he was the champion, he was the lead sponsor of a bill to try to oppose new sanctions on Iran that would violate the first-step nuclear agreement earlier this year.
His ranking member, the ranking member of the committee right now, is Senator Corker. So he could very likely be the new chair if this switches to Republican leadership. Senator Corker has actually not been at the forefront of pushing for more sanctions, but what he has pushed for is a joint resolution of disapproval of a nuclear agreement with Iran. So this is legislation he has right now. He has about a dozen senators, all Republicans, who have supported it, saying that the administration, in any kind of nuclear deal, they would have to actually submit it to Congress for an up or down vote, which, of course, is not about real diplomacy, is not about making sure that Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon and having respect for the very sensitive diplomatic process, but instead it's about political gamesmanship. He has also supported a legislation that outlines in very stark terms what an Iran nuclear agreement would look like. So it has some very onerous conditions that would essentially require Iran to dismantle its nuclear program, which--all the negotiators that actually work with Iran know that's entirely unrealistic. Iran is not going to give up its nuclear enrichment program.
HEDGES: Gould notes the potential for other voices to be bolstered in the event of a Republican-controlled Senate. AIPAC, for example, has launched a large campaign to encourage representatives in challenging Obama on the lifting of any sanctions, even temporary. Others, like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, advocate authorizing the use of force.
Again, there's also a proposal by Senator Lindsey Graham, who wouldn't be in a leadership position, but, because of his party affiliation with Republicans, could be seen as given more authority in these matters of pushing for what--his legislative proposal that he actually warned of bringing up last year, which was an authorization for the use of military force against Iran.
HEDGES: And while for many the prospects of a new war with Iran seem unlikely, both Wilkerson and Gould warn that failure to reach an agreement may very well redirect American foreign policy down a path that could ultimately lead to the use of military force in the region.
GOULD: I mean, that's really what is the alternative. Like, if we don't get a nuclear deal, then we could be seen that just like we saw with Iraq, where first sanctions are presumably imposed for some kind of behavior change, for concerns about weapons of mass destruction, then quickly that logic changes, as we saw with Iraq. Then, when Madeleine Albright was asked about, well, are we going to lift sanctions against Iraq, since Saddam Hussein was letting in weapons inspectors--and the answer was no, not until there's regime change. And so sanctions, they take on a life of their own, and no longer are they used for behavior change; they're seen as just a way for the U.S. to provoke regime change.
WILKERSON: What do we do if the Iranian deal fails, as you say? What do we do? Do we bomb Tehran? There's no surer way to put a decision in the heads of the clerics, the IRG, and others to go nuclear. I would predict that within a year they will have tested a nuclear weapon if we bomb them.
The only way to stop them from having a nuclear weapon through hard power is to muster a half a million forces, invade Iran, occupy it for ten years, spend $2 trillion. And at the end of the ten years and the expenditure of all that taxpayer money, I defy anyone to say there's a success in sight.
HEDGES: For The Real News, Thomas Hedges, Washington.
The past several months have witnessed a heated debate over the best way for the United States and Israel to respond to Iran's nuclear activities. As the argument has raged, the United States has tightened its already robust sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic, and the European Union announced in January that it will begin an embargo on Iranian oil on July 1. Although the United States, the EU, and Iran have recently returned to the negotiating table, a palpable sense of crisis still looms.
It should not. Most U.S., European, and Israeli commentators and policymakers warn that a nuclear-armed Iran would be the worst possible outcome of the current standoff. In fact, it would probably be the best possible result: the one most likely to restore stability to the Middle East.
POWER BEGS TO BE BALANCED
The crisis over Iran's nuclear program could end in three different ways. First, diplomacy coupled with serious sanctions could convince Iran to abandon its pursuit of a nuclear weapon. But this outcome is unlikely: the historical record indicates that a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons can rarely be dissuaded from doing so. Punishing a state through economic sanctions does not inexorably derail its nuclear program. Take North Korea, which succeeded in building its weapons despite countless rounds of sanctions and UN Security Council resolutions. If Tehran determines that its security depends on possessing nuclear weapons, sanctions are unlikely to change its mind. In fact, adding still more sanctions now could make Iran feel even more vulnerable, giving it still more reason to seek the protection of the ultimate deterrent.
The second possible outcome is that Iran stops short of testing a nuclear weapon but develops a breakout capability, the capacity to build and test one quite quickly. Iran would not be the first country to acquire a sophisticated nuclear program without building an actual bomb. Japan, for instance, maintains a vast civilian nuclear infrastructure. Experts believe that it could produce a nuclear weapon on short notice.
Such a breakout capability might satisfy the domestic political needs of Iran's rulers by assuring hard-liners that they can enjoy all the benefits of having a bomb (such as greater security) without the downsides (such as international isolation and condemnation). The problem is that a breakout capability might not work as intended.
The United States and its European allies are primarily concerned with weaponization, so they might accept a scenario in which Iran stops short of a nuclear weapon. Israel, however, has made it clear that it views a significant Iranian enrichment capacity alone as an unacceptable threat. It is possible, then, that a verifiable commitment from Iran to stop short of a weapon could appease major Western powers but leave the Israelis unsatisfied. Israel would be less intimidated by a virtual nuclear weapon than it would be by an actual one and therefore would likely continue its risky efforts at subverting Iran's nuclear program through sabotage and assassination -- which could lead Iran to conclude that a breakout capability is an insufficient deterrent, after all, and that only weaponization can provide it with the security it seeks.
The third possible outcome of the standoff is that Iran continues its current course and publicly goes nuclear by testing a weapon. U.S. and Israeli officials have declared that outcome unacceptable, arguing that a nuclear Iran is a uniquely terrifying prospect, even an existential threat. Such language is typical of major powers, which have historically gotten riled up whenever another country has begun to develop a nuclear weapon of its own. Yet so far, every time another country has managed to shoulder its way into the nuclear club, the other members have always changed tack and decided to live with it. In fact, by reducing imbalances in military power, new nuclear states generally produce more regional and international stability, not less.
Israel's regional nuclear monopoly, which has proved remarkably durable for the past four decades, has long fueled instability in the Middle East. In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist. It is Israel's nuclear arsenal, not Iran's desire for one, that has contributed most to the current crisis. Power, after all, begs to be balanced. What is surprising about the Israeli case is that it has taken so long for a potential balancer to emerge.
Of course, it is easy to understand why Israel wants to remain the sole nuclear power in the region and why it is willing to use force to secure that status. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq to prevent a challenge to its nuclear monopoly. It did the same to Syria in 2007 and is now considering similar action against Iran. But the very acts that have allowed Israel to maintain its nuclear edge in the short term have prolonged an imbalance that is unsustainable in the long term. Israel's proven ability to strike potential nuclear rivals with impunity has inevitably made its enemies anxious to develop the means to prevent Israel from doing so again. In this way, the current tensions are best viewed not as the early stages of a relatively recent Iranian nuclear crisis but rather as the final stages of a decades-long Middle East nuclear crisis that will end only when a balance of military power is restored.
One reason the danger of a nuclear Iran has been grossly exaggerated is that the debate surrounding it has been distorted by misplaced worries and fundamental misunderstandings of how states generally behave in the international system. The first prominent concern, which undergirds many others, is that the Iranian regime is innately irrational. Despite a widespread belief to the contrary, Iranian policy is made not by "mad mullahs" but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders. Although Iran's leaders indulge in inflammatory and hateful rhetoric, they show no propensity for self-destruction. It would be a grave error for policymakers in the United States and Israel to assume otherwise.
Yet that is precisely what many U.S. and Israeli officials and analysts have done. Portraying Iran as irrational has allowed them to argue that the logic of nuclear deterrence does not apply to the Islamic Republic. If Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, they warn, it would not hesitate to use it in a first strike against Israel, even though doing so would invite massive retaliation and risk destroying everything the Iranian regime holds dear.
Although it is impossible to be certain of Iranian intentions, it is far more likely that if Iran desires nuclear weapons, it is for the purpose of providing for its own security, not to improve its offensive capabilities (or destroy itself). Iran may be intransigent at the negotiating table and defiant in the face of sanctions, but it still acts to secure its own preservation. Iran's leaders did not, for example, attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz despite issuing blustery warnings that they might do so after the EU announced its planned oil embargo in January. The Iranian regime clearly concluded that it did not want to provoke what would surely have been a swift and devastating American response to such a move.
Nevertheless, even some observers and policymakers who accept that the Iranian regime is rational still worry that a nuclear weapon would embolden it, providing Tehran with a shield that would allow it to act more aggressively and increase its support for terrorism. Some analysts even fear that Iran would directly provide terrorists with nuclear arms. The problem with these concerns is that they contradict the record of every other nuclear weapons state going back to 1945. History shows that when countries acquire the bomb, they feel increasingly vulnerable and become acutely aware that their nuclear weapons make them a potential target in the eyes of major powers. This awareness discourages nuclear states from bold and aggressive action. Maoist China, for example, became much less bellicose after acquiring nuclear weapons in 1964, and India and Pakistan have both become more cautious since going nuclear. There is little reason to believe Iran would break this mold.
As for the risk of a handoff to terrorists, no country could transfer nuclear weapons without running a high risk of being found out. U.S. surveillance capabilities would pose a serious obstacle, as would the United States' impressive and growing ability to identify the source of fissile material. Moreover, countries can never entirely control or even predict the behavior of the terrorist groups they sponsor. Once a country such as Iran acquires a nuclear capability, it will have every reason to maintain full control over its arsenal. After all, building a bomb is costly and dangerous. It would make little sense to transfer the product of that investment to parties that cannot be trusted or managed.
Another oft-touted worry is that if Iran obtains the bomb, other states in the region will follow suit, leading to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. But the nuclear age is now almost 70 years old, and so far, fears of proliferation have proved to be unfounded. Properly defined, the term "proliferation" means a rapid and uncontrolled spread. Nothing like that has occurred; in fact, since 1970, there has been a marked slowdown in the emergence of nuclear states. There is no reason to expect that this pattern will change now. Should Iran become the second Middle Eastern nuclear power since 1945, it would hardly signal the start of a landslide. When Israel acquired the bomb in the 1960s, it was at war with many of its neighbors. Its nuclear arms were a much bigger threat to the Arab world than Iran's program is today. If an atomic Israel did not trigger an arms race then, there is no reason a nuclear Iran should now.
In 1991, the historical rivals India and Pakistan signed a treaty agreeing not to target each other's nuclear facilities. They realized that far more worrisome than their adversary's nuclear deterrent was the instability produced by challenges to it. Since then, even in the face of high tensions and risky provocations, the two countries have kept the peace. Israel and Iran would do well to consider this precedent. If Iran goes nuclear, Israel and Iran will deter each other, as nuclear powers always have. There has never been a full-scale war between two nuclear-armed states. Once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, deterrence will apply, even if the Iranian arsenal is relatively small. No other country in the region will have an incentive to acquire its own nuclear capability, and the current crisis will finally dissipate, leading to a Middle East that is more stable than it is today.
For that reason, the United States and its allies need not take such pains to prevent the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon. Diplomacy between Iran and the major powers should continue, because open lines of communication will make the Western countries feel better able to live with a nuclear Iran. But the current sanctions on Iran can be dropped: they primarily harm ordinary Iranians, with little purpose.
Most important, policymakers and citizens in the Arab world, Europe, Israel, and the United States should take comfort from the fact that history has shown that where nuclear capabilities emerge, so, too, does stability. When it comes to nuclear weapons, now as ever, more may be better.