Magic numbers

The magic numbers are 44 House Democrats and 13 Senate Democrats. Those are the thresholds opponents of the Iran nuclear deal need to reach to achieve veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress, assuming all Republicans vote against.

Rob Satloff says defeat of the deal would be no big deal. John Bolton says it would be a good thing. Suzanne Nossel says it would be a disaster. Who is right?

Nossel in a word. But let’s go through the drill.

Satloff argues that defeat in the Congress might either push President Obama to

  1. reopen the negotiations, seeking a “better deal,”or
  2. seek to implement the agreement without Congressional approval.

For Case 1, Rob offers no explanation of why the Iranians would agree to renegotiate.  For Case 2, he suggests the Iranians would abide by the terms of the agreement, despite not getting the sanctions relief that was the primary purpose of their engagement in the negotiations. This runs contrary to both what the Iranians have said–that they will proceed apace if there is no deal–and what they have done in the past. The Iranian nuclear program mushroomed (to use an unfortunate metaphor) after the Bush administration ignored Tehran’s feelers about reaching an accommodation and refused to talk about anything but dismantling its nuclear program.

In both cases, Rob fails to consider the reaction of the Chinese, Russians, Europeans and Gulf States.

This is fatal to his argument. With rejection of the agreement in the US Congress, the united front against Iran getting nuclear weapons would quickly evaporate. The Chinese and Europeans, who have been salivating at the prospects for increased trade with Iran, would have no reason to go along with reopening the negotiations. If the Iranians do appear to be implementing the agreement, multilateral sanctions would rapidly disappear, leaving the US isolated and unable to get the European support required if the “snapback” provision is to be used.

Bolton argues that the snapback provision is not only useless but harmful to American interests, because it sets a precedent for getting around the UN Security Council veto. He cites as a negative example a Cold War era effort by Dean Acheson to do an end-run around the UNSC through the General Assembly. That effort caused no harm Bolton admits, but he is unfazed. He is sure snapback is bad, even if the experience he cites was not. It’s hard to imagine why the New York Times published that argument.

Let’s get real. Rejection of the deal in Congress would most likely lead to three “no”s:

  1. No International Atomic Energy Agency inspections;
  2. No multilateral sanctions;
  3. No constraints on the Iranian nuclear program.

Iran would be free, if it wants, to move ahead towards nuclear weapons, not in 10 or 15 years, but right now. If President Obama or his successor were to decide on attacking the Iranian nuclear program, he would be on his own without allies and without the grounds Iranian violation of the agreement would provide.

That is not the worst of it though. American clout with all concerned would decline markedly. With Iran presumed to be racing for a nuclear weapon, the Saudis, Egyptians and Turks would need to keep pace. The Europeans think they led what they call the EU3+3 (P5+1) in the negotiations. Rejection in Congress would pull the rug out from under our closest allies. Russia and China would deem the US unreliable, even as they respectively pursue arms and energy deals with Tehran.

Rejection in short would be a milestone comparable to the Senate’s rejection of the League of Nations not much more than 100 years ago. It would break the faith with Europe, reduce US clout with less friendly world powers, initiate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and limit America’s ability to lead on many non-nuclear issues.

President Obama will speak about all this today at American University. I trust he’ll have those magic numbers in mind.

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