The Republican Congress’s failure in September to pass a resolution disapproving the nuclear agreement with Iran didn’t mean that the deal was safe.* The president won a major victory when its supporters managed to bottle up the resolution disapproving the deal in the Senate, thus protecting him from having to veto it. (The House defeated a resolution to approve the deal.) But then the fight took on a new form that could threaten the agreement.
Outside groups who opposed the Iran deal have an ongoing interest in trying to undermine it, or at least bring more pressure on its backers. Some members of Congress want to mollify Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, since he’d so openly and ferociously opposed the deal and lost. Some are also trying to get right with AIPAC, the leading organization opposed to the deal, and to soothe those of their constituents who are particularly passionate backers of Israel and are upset that they voted for the deal. A group of senators has just written new legislation—widely referred to on Capitol Hill as a CYA (or “cover your ass”) action—that would give additional military equipment and other protection to Israel.
The problems with this are twofold: no matter how vaguely they couch it, the senators are proposing to send advanced offensive weapons to Israel and to impose new sanctions on Iran, both of which could possibly harm the deal. Moreover and fundamentally, the deal was generally understood to be of great benefit for Israel by removing the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon for at least fifteen years. A number of former Israeli defense and intelligence officials had expressed the view that the deal was good for Israel. A Democratic senator who backed it said to me, “It’s almost cognitive dissonance that because of the deal we have to do something for Israel.”
Nevertheless, while the voting on the resolution of disapproval was still going on, a shopping list of new weapons for Israel, believed to have been developed by AIPAC with the Israeli embassy in Washington, circulated around the Senate. Netanyahu had insisted that the list be kept under wraps lest its disclosure suggest that he wouldn’t succeed in killing the deal itself. The list included massive ordnance penetrators (MOPs), or “bunker busters,” capable of destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities, and B-52s able to deliver them. No other country owns such planes and to transfer them to another nation would be a violation of the New START Treaty between the US and Russia, signed in 2010.
These new weapons were to be in addition to the extensive military assistance the US already provides to Israel—which under Obama is greater than ever—on which there is broad political consensus. The core group working with Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, on new assurances for Israel have been four senators who made up their minds late to support the deal and said that more needed to be done for Israel because of it: Michael Bennet of Colorado, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Mark Warner of Virginia. Booker and Blumenthal were fairly specific in their demands. Senators pushing for new weapons for Israel because of the deal couldn’t say that they were trying to please their constituents and Netanyahu and AIPAC; they said they were seeking to “strengthen” the deal.
Under the Corker-Cardin bill, adopted almost unanimously in early May, Congress had sixty days to consider the deal once it was submitted by the president, which he did on July 20. So there remained a few days following the vote on September 10 to bottle up a disapproval resolution for the Republicans to continue to try to disrupt the president’s approach to Iran. The following week, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, particularly agitated that he had lost this major battle he’d thought he could win, put the Senate through another vote on the resolution of disapproval. He was seeking to divide the Democrats who had supported the deal and he particularly wanted to put more pressure on the Democrats for whom the vote in favor of the deal had been especially difficult politically. Even if these Democrats didn’t change their vote, they’d have another vote on their record that AIPAC and other groups or moneyed contributors could consider when they came up for reelection.
And so, on the following Tuesday, McConnell forced yet another roll-call vote on cloture, or closing off debate (the Democrats weren’t filibustering, though the threat remained), on a resolution to disapprove the deal. If it succeeded, McConnell would then need just a majority, or fifty-one votes, to send the resolution to the president and force him to veto it.
But if McConnell thought that he had a real chance of peeling away any of the Democrats who had voted to protect the deal and the president—especially those who did so after considerable anguish—he was mistaken. The forty-two Democrats who had voted for the deal held firm on this second vote. Each senator had publicly announced how he or she would vote, and much note was taken of the decision of those for whom it had been an especially difficult choice. But then McConnell did what he had earlier tried to prevent his side from doing: he called for votes on issues that aroused strong emotions but if adopted could undermine the deal. Such “poison pills” were another device for putting the president’s allies on the record as opposing something that to large numbers of their constituents would seem reasonable and desirable.
And so, on September 17, the final day for congressional consideration of the Iran deal, a frustrated McConnell moved to adopt amendments that would make demands on Iran’s behavior part of the agreement. This in itself was a deal killer. The amendments were to make the agreement dependent on Iran giving Israel diplomatic recognition and on releasing four American hostages. Minority Leader Harry Reid said to the Senate, “We’ve seen this strategy before, it never works.” He later said what everyone knew: “What the Republican colleagues are doing right now is very, very cynical.”
The move to make the deal contingent on Iran giving Israel diplomatic recognition was simply a showboating tactic, originally sponsored by presidential candidate Marco Rubio and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, author of the infamous letter of March 9 to Iran’s leaders, cosigned by forty-seven Republicans, warning them that the deal might not survive when Obama was no longer president.
After losing on these amendments as well, McConnell warned that those wouldn’t be the last votes on the Iran deal. “Either way, this debate will continue.” He added ominously, “This is a debate with a very long shelf life.”
It turned out to be far more difficult than they’d anticipated for those senators who wanted to provide Israel with major new weapons systems as a result of the deal with Iran to arrive at a list of what to offer. The proposals for further major military aid to Israel were based on profound misconceptions. First there’s what Washington calls the “optics.” The administration and its allies in the negotiations had stressed that the Iran deal was good for Israel. The push by some senators to provide major new assistance as a response to it suggested otherwise.
Then there was the politics. Netanyahu either receives very bad advice or doesn’t listen to whatever sound advice he’s given. He’d already blundered by appearing before Congress in March to denounce the then-uncompleted deal and presuming to tell Congress how it should vote. He’d been much criticized in Israel for gravely damaging the US–Israel relationship. After the vote, Netanyahu was left hanging with little but his embarrassment. Now he was presuming to demand compensation for the deal. And for good measure, he recently condemned the deal in a speech to the UN.
In a recent conversation, Joe Cirincione, president of the anti–nuclear proliferation organization Ploughshares, which had organized the coalition of outside groups that fought for the deal, said to me, “It would set a terrible precedent to reward Netanyahu for trying to sabotage US national security policy.” Cirincione, a much-respected author of three books on nuclear policy with experience in Washington’s think tanks and on Capitol Hill, also said:
We already give Israel a huge amount of aid—the most of any nation on earth. The Iran deal has just decreased the threat to Israel, not increased it. To give them more aid at this point would buy into the false narrative created by Bibi. Worse, it would encourage the already accelerated settlement construction that is a real threat to the stability of Israel and Palestine.
Another wrinkle was that Cardin’s having voted against the deal—making him one of only four Democratic senators who did so—put him at a disadvantage when it came to trying to get Democratic senators who had voted for the deal to help him in his pursuit of weapons for Israel as compensation. And the administration didn’t welcome legislation that could upset the careful balance struck after nearly two years of difficult negotiations, in which Iran gave up the development of nuclear weapons in exchange for the lifting of sanctions that have been choking its economy. Tehran could be expected to react in some way to any such change.
But the administration had indicated that it was willing to discuss appropriate new military cooperation with Israel and during the Senate debate the president called Netanyahu to assure him of his openness to discussing this. But there were limits on what the president was willing to commit to. In late August, President Obama set out his position in a letter to Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, whose constituency has one of the highest proportions of Jews in the House and whose vote Obama particularly wanted in light of Senator Charles Schumer’s announcement that he’d oppose the deal, as did some other representatives from New York. (The letter would give Nadler political protection if he voted for the deal.)
In the lengthy letter, which set out the definitive administration position on actions it’s prepared to take following the Iran deal, Obama reassured Nadler that if Iran broke the deal and raced to develop a nuclear weapon, “all of the options available to the United States—including the military option—will remain available through the life of the deal and beyond.”
Obama reiterated that he considers Israel’s security “sacrosanct” and pledged continuing discussions on what is needed for Israel’s security, calling it “imperative” that the US and the other nations in the P5+1, who’d negotiated the deal with Iran, “ensure we and our allies are more capable than ever” of confronting Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, including support for terrorism. Translated: there would also be additional aid not only to Israel but also to the Arab Gulf states that are allied with the US. (The day after he received the letter, Nadler announced that he’d support the deal.)
The administration was already involved in discussions about extending a ten-year Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Israel, now in its seventh year, and this could end up being the vehicle for providing more assistance to meet Israel’s security needs irrespective of the Iran deal. The president’s letter stopped short of pledging the offensive weapons being discussed by the Cardin group.
In drawing up a proposal that would mollify the Israeli government, these senators were trying to win Senate support that was as broad as possible, but by far most of their Democratic colleagues balked. And McConnell had vowed that he wouldn’t “give the Democrats a second vote to cover themselves.” He wasn’t interested in going through another loss on Iran by passing a bill that the president could veto and the Congress couldn’t override.
The negotiations on Capitol Hill over a follow-on bill on the nuclear deal were tense and dragged on far longer than those who sought to offset their vote for the deal had contemplated. With their statements that more needed to be done to “strengthen” the deal, they had put themselves out on a limb. In late September a new draft of what might be in the proposal was leaked. It no longer contained explicit demands for huge new bombs to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities and the planes necessary to deliver them. A substantial number of Democratic senators outside these discussions had registered their opposition to the bunker busters.
An obviously tense senator involved in working on this package of aid for Israel to compensate for the deal with Iran, speaking in a very circumspect manner, told me that dropping a specific reference to the giant MOPs didn’t mean that all weapons designed to take out Iranian nuclear plants were now out of bounds. The legislators were now considering smaller bombs to be aimed at Iran’s nuclear facilities that might be more effective than MOPs and wouldn’t need the B-52 bombers to deliver them. But these smaller bombs would still be a new offensive weapon for Israel. Cardin and the senators allied with him were still seeking to give Israel “qualitative superiority” over Iran. But Israel has had qualitative military superiority in the Middle East for decades and also possesses between one hundred and two hundred nuclear weapons.
This new version of follow-on legislation by Congress also contained a provision for expedited action by Congress to impose sanctions if Iran is found to have participated in or encouraged terrorist acts against the US or its allies. The administration had argued that sanctions in case of terrorist acts by Iran—including through its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah—were a separate matter and had not been part of the negotiation. Cirincione says these new sanctions are “completely unnecessary.” He adds:
We already have ample authority to put on new sanctions for terrorism or human rights–related issues. This legislation is an attempt to grease the skids so that in a moment of outrage over an instance of Iranian misbehavior the Congress could be stampeded into reapplying nuclear-related sanctions en masse, thus breaking the deal.
Another way the deal’s opponents are trying to make it difficult to carry out is by tying up those in the government who were to implement it by requiring numerous reports—a maneuver sometimes utilized by legislators to obstruct the carrying out of a policy they oppose. Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard had been pushing this idea for the Iran deal. Cirincione had his own explanation of what was going on:
Many members feel the political need to satisfy a constituency, and they justify it by giving it a strategic rationale and saying that something new is required. But there isn’t a deficiency in the deal: it blocks all of Iran’s paths to a bomb. There’s not going to be a breakout, and if there were, the US would take care of it, not Israel. There is a way to reassure Israel without rewarding Netanyahu, with a reasonable military aid package, additional long-term planning, and increased sharing of intelligence.
Now that the idea had been planted through the Corker-Cardin bill that because of the sanctions Congress should have a role in approving the deal—though the president could have implemented it anyway—some senators argue that Congress should also have a role in the deal’s implementation. This could well lead to still more headaches for the administration—no matter who is president. For now, the deal’s opponents, in and out of Congress, are looking for ways to undermine it by putting booby traps, such as additional sanctions, in new legislation. Cirincione says, “It’s obvious. They’re still trying to set up the kill of the deal.”
The version of the additional aid for Israel finally agreed on by Cardin’s group of senators and made public on October 1, watered down the wording that was hostile to Iran in the earlier draft. Some of the outside groups who backed the Iran deal found it acceptable, but it still contained accelerated sanctions for acts of terrorism. More important, though shrouded in neutral-sounding terms (“applicable ordnance and delivery systems”) and therefore perhaps overlooked, it still authorized the smaller and presumed more effective version of the bunker busters that the advocates of “strengthening” the deal had wanted.
Also striking was how slim the support for this proposal was. Cardin didn’t even win the votes of all the Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee, much less in the wider Senate. Its sponsors included the four Democrats who had previously voted for the deal while also saying it warranted further assistance to Israel, as well as Schumer and of course Cardin, plus Chris Coons of Delaware.
The White House simply remarked that the bill was “a good starting point for a discussion” of what was to be done for Israel—a polite brush-off in lieu of flat-out opposition. Still, it appears that the administration wants to offer Netanyahu a consolation gift when he meets with the president on November 9. A Democratic senator who didn’t sign on to the Cardin bill and didn’t want to be quoted as criticizing his colleagues told me:
It’s unfortunate that this is a partisan bill; it invites retaliation from the Republicans, probably a bit more hawkish version. Some Republicans have said that if we put this up as by just all Democrats we’ll consider it a CYA.
This senator added:
Some of the statements of policy, such as Iran has no right to enrich uranium, are tautological—axioms are repeated for their brochure value. Republicans such as Bob Corker and Jeff Flake [of Arizona] who would like to work with us in overseeing implementation are nervous about an all-Democratic proposal.
A danger facing any proposal to further arm Israel as a “present” because of the deal is that Iran could well consider this confrontational and want to respond or retaliate—as opposed to begining to put relations between the US and Iran on a better footing, as the administration desires. The bill drawn up by Cardin and others intended to satisfy the Israeli government, AIPAC, and certain constituents may go nowhere given its partisan nature, its limited support even among Democrats, and the administration’s refusal to embrace it. Other Democratic Senators have said they won’t consider legislation to mollify Israel that doesn’t have the president’s backing. McConnell had made it clear that he’s not interested in abetting the Democrats’ effort to protect themselves (or CYA). But the three weeks of tense efforts to come up with something that even seven Democratic backers could agree on and that the administration wouldn’t dismiss outright illuminates the exquisite difficulty of finding a path toward mollifying Israel in a way that doesn’t endanger the spirit or substance of the historic anti-nuclear deal with Iran.
—This is the second part of a two-part article.