A line is drawn firmly in the sand

A line is drawn firmly in the sand
Analysis: Not since Watergate has an issue proven more divisive in Washington than the Iran, P5+1 framework deal. The weeks ahead are crucial to how this will play out.
8 min read
07 April, 2015
Common cause. John Boehner and Netanyahu have joined forces to scuttle Iran deal [Getty]

By the end of the day Sunday, four days after the signing of the framework agreement between the five permanent members of United Nations Security Council, Germany (P5+1) and Iran to end Tehran's alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon, the lines in the sands of Washington politics had been clearly drawn.


US President Barack Obama mustered his formidable powers of  office to ensure that the deal stands, while Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu rallied his loyalists in Congress, both the Senate and the House, and took to the always-available-to-him American airways to try to spike the deal.

     The Iran deal framework agreement may have been signed last Thursday, but the debate has just begun.


On Sunday evening, Obama – who had given a number of interviews and statements between Thursday, 2 April and the end of Easter, capped off the weekend with a comprehensive interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that was aired on the newspaper’s website, with portions of it also published in print.


Earlier in the day, Netanyahu appeared on the Sunday talk shows repeating why the deal “is a bad deal” and how Iran "can now walk its way to a nuclear bomb", as he told Chuck Todd on NBC’s "Meet the Press", redundantly reiterating what he has been saying for years.

Republicans take to the airwaves

And he wasn’t alone. Scores of Republican politicians made the rounds in the service of Netanyahu’s message, including Speaker of the House John Boehner, second-in-line to the presidency (after the vice president of the United States in the event of incapacitation) who attempted to trump the deal before it was even reached, orchestrating (what he thought would be ) a “coup de grace” by inviting Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress without informing the administration.


Also channel-hopping, whipping up an anti-deal frenzy, were Republican senator Lindsey Graham, and other Republican heavyweights including John McCain Marco Rubio, and Tom Cotton who, two months into his tenure as a United States senator authored a letter addressed to the “Leaders of the Islamic Republic” telling them (with the blessing of 46 other senate co-signatories) that whatever deal they reach with the Obama administration will not be binding.


To be sure, the administration's principals, including Obama, his vice president Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry – who tirelessly conducted the marathon talks with his Iranian counterpart, Jawad Zarif, and the other foreign ministers of the P5+1 – overemphasized (some say hyperbolically oversold) the merits of the deal, with president calling it "an historic" deal and a once in a lifetime opportunity.


In his statement to the American people and the world from the White House, on a serendipitously perfect Washington day after the long winter, Obama described US actions that led to the deal thus:


"This has been a long time coming. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been advancing its nuclear program for decades. By the time I took office, Iran was operating thousands of centrifuges, which can produce the materials for a nuclear bomb -- and Iran was concealing a covert nuclear facility. I made clear that we were prepared to resolve this issue diplomatically, but only if Iran came to the table in a serious way. When that did not happen, we rallied the world to impose the toughest sanctions in history – sanctions which had a profound impact on the Iranian economy."


To underscore what is at stake, Obama added: "For the fact is, we only have three options for addressing Iran’s nuclear program" –reach a deal like the one just reached to peacefully prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, thereby starting another war in the Middle East, or pull out of negotiations, "and hope for the best."


Speaking shortly after he did, Kerry described the deal as a "critical milestone." He went on to explain that as part of the deal, Iran’s installed centrifuges would be cut by two-thirds, the only facility allowed to enrich uranium will be its facility in Natanz, and there will be no fissile material allowed at its Fordow plant. Kerry said provisions of the deal will be in place for varying amounts of time, from 10 years to indefinitely.


His spokeswoman at the State Department Marie Harf, who accompanied him on most the P5+1 and Iran negotiations, including the last marathon eight-day talks, told us on Friday, a few hours after arriving from Lausanne that the administration was confident that the deal is best possible outcome of talks that had taken eighteen months. She repeated the president's words that the deal, "is not based on trust” but on unprecedented verification safeguards.


Having learned so much about negotiating the Iran nuke deal over the past months, Harf painstakingly explained on both 3 April and 6 April how inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, will be granted access to Iranian nuclear facilities to ensure Iran does not cheat on the deal. If any violations are detected, there will be enough time for the international community to react.

Battle lines drawn

Meanwhile, the battle was heating up along the lines of scrimmage. As Netanyahu's broadside attacks were beginning to flicker away by Easter sunset, Obama told Friedman in the aforementioned interview that in his view "engagement", combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-a-vis "Burma, Cuba and Iran", dubbing this engagement as at the core of the "Obama Doctrine".


In his interview with Friedman, Obama said that, "America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities — like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer."


After reiterating for the umpteenth time America's non-compromising stance on total Israeli security and military supremacy in the region, Obama also reiterated the position that, “there is no formula, there is no option, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon that will be more effective than the diplomatic initiative and framework that we put forward — and that’s demonstrable"”


With regards to protecting the Arab countries of the oil rich Gulf Cooperation Council, Obama told Friedman that they have some very real external threats, but they also have some internal threats – “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances. And so part of our job is to work with these states and say, ‘How can we build your defence capabilities against external threats, but also, how can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [the Islamic State, or IS] to choose from.”


By the end of the day on Monday, the American and the Israeli positions were more polarized than ever imagined. In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) Obama dismissed Netanyahu's demand that Iran must recognize Israel as part of any final deal. "The notion that we would condition Iran not getting nuclear weapons in a verifiable deal on Iran recognizing Israel is really akin to saying that we won't sign a deal unless the nature of the Iranian regime completely transforms," Obama said.


Earlier in the day (on Monday) the buzz around Washington was how Israel was preparing a lobbying strategy to scuttle the Iran deal. According to an Associated Press report, an official Israeli analysis has drawn up a list of alleged shortcomings of the nuclear framework agreement between Iran and world powers, providing a basis for what is expected to be months of furious lobbying by Netanyahu to reshape or cancel the deal. The report claims that the Israeli analysis, drawn up by officials in Netanyahu's office over the weekend, alleges that the system of inspections is not as thorough as proclaimed by negotiators because it does not explicitly force the Iranians to open their sites "anywhere, anytime."


It also claims the agreement is vague about what happens to Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium, a key ingredient in producing nuclear bombs, or how sanctions might be re-imposed if Iran violates the deal. The lobbying efforts aim at giving Congress, where Netanyahu has so much support, the final say.

Lobbying bears fruit

Already the lobbying seems to have borne fruit. Monday evening the airwaves were abuzz that Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, one of Capitol Hill’s most influential voices in the Iran nuclear debate, is strongly endorsing the passage of a law opposed by Obama that would give Congress an avenue to reject the White House-brokered framework unveiled last week.


The comments Monday by the Democratic leader, who is set to become minority leader after current leader Harry Reid leaves the Senate, "illustrate the enormity of the task ahead for President Barack Obama and his team: While there’s no guarantee that Congress would ultimately reject an agreement with Iran, there’s an increasingly bipartisan consensus that Congress should at least have the ability to do so" according to Politico (an influential Washington newspaper, radio and TV, founded in 2007) which broke the news.


Schumer, a staunch Israeli ally with close ties to AIPAC, told the newspaper in an email that, "This is a very serious issue that deserves careful consideration, and I expect to have a classified briefing in the near future. I strongly believe Congress should have the right to disapprove any agreement and I support the Corker bill which would allow that to occur."


Politico also reports that Schumer had quietly signed on to a bill allowing congressional review of the Iran deal two weeks ago, but made little fanfare of his co-sponsorship. In a brief statement on Friday, he said only that he’d review the agreement. Now that the outlines of an agreement are known, Schumer’s emphatic statement that Congress has an important role becomes more significant, signalling to fellow Democrats that it’s safe to jump on board the review bill.


Schumer's comments, which came just as the White House press secretary Josh Earnest was strongly criticizing the legislation, is by all accounts a blow to Obama's effort.


The Iran deal framework agreement may have been signed last Thursday, but the debate has just begun. The days and weeks ahead promise to be the kind of political drama that splits the political arena in Washington into two halves, the like of which have not been seen since Watergate more than forty years ago.