Mission accomplished?

Photographer: VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images

Do Republicans Have a Plan B for Iran?

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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A number of people have commented on the letter from 47 U.S. Republican senators to Iran about a potential nuclear deal, which Bloomberg View columnist Josh Rogin brought to light yesterday. They point to the missive's inaccuracies on U.S. law, its underestimation of some very sharp U.S.-educated Iranian officials, and the appearance of disloyalty it created. Add one more criticism to the list: tactical stupidity.

Iran's Nuclear Program

In reading the letter, it's important to remember where we are -- at the end of more than a year of negotiations in the latest attempt to reach an agreement on Iran's nuclear program. That's an international effort that has been going on since 2003, with multiple missed deadlines and failures along the way. With yet another deadline approaching on March 24, there is a better chance the two sides will reach agreement this time -- but only a chance.

So what happens if, as is all too possible, the two sides fail yet again to reach agreement? The senators (and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) will be able to pat themselves on the back: mission accomplished. But if they are genuinely concerned about Iran accumulating the enriched uranium stockpiles and capabilities to build a nuclear arsenal, they should be thinking hard about how the talks would break down.

First, to keep international sanctions on Iran in place should the talks fail, and to keep Europe, Russia and China on board with maintaining pressure on Iran, it's important the U.S. doesn't look like the culprit in the blame game that would follow. If the U.S. is seen as having collapsed the talks, because it doesn't really want any achievable deal, European sanctions against Iran -- the ones that tipped its economy into recession -- may crumble.

So for U.S. senators to write an open letter that amounts to a public effort to torpedo the deal was, well, not too clever.

Second, although the administration has said talks will end if the current deadline is missed, that isn't a given. It remains very much to the advantage of the U.S. and its partners to keep the talks going under the terms of the temporary agreement reached in November 2013, failing a permanent deal. The existing agreement has eliminated Iran's stockpiles and production of its most worrying type of nuclear fuel, uranium enriched to 20 percent; reduced the growth of its stockpiles of low enriched uranium; and introduced much higher levels of international inspection. 

Source: International Atomic Energy Agency

So if the senators succeed in persuading Iran that any potential deal would only be binding until a new president enters the White House, what incentive does Iran have to continue with those limitations, rather than go back to producing as much fuel as it can? 

Finally, as Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif pointed out in his response to the letter, the senators displayed an extraordinary level of parochialism. The agreement that may or may not be reached won't be between the U.S. and Iran. It would be signed by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- plus Germany on one side, and Iran on the other. So the letter is a warning not just to Iran, but also to a roster of America's most important allies and great power rivals not to take the signature of a U.S. president seriously; not just on this executive agreement, but all such agreements.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham says he and other senators weren't trying to undermine the president, just to demonstrate that lifting sanctions the Congress imposed is up to Congress, and that it should therefore have a vote on any deal. That's a reasonable debate to be had with the White House. It doesn't explain the need to make the argument to Iran.

Ultimately, the senators are correct about one thing: If they and the next U.S. president want to incur international opprobrium and kill a deal already in effect, they can. But would that improve the case the U.S. would then need to make for strengthening international sanctions against Iran? Would it help the U.S. to gain international support or acceptance for airstrikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, if that became necessary? The answer to both questions is, no.

So what were those 47 senators thinking?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net