Carl Leubsdorf: Hard-liners’ mischief-making complicates nuclear talks with Iran
So far, so good.
That's the initial assessment on Iran's decision Monday to halt its most sensitive uranium enrichment activities, thereby complying with the first phase of its agreement with the United States and other Western powers.
In response to the Iranian decision, which was verified by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, the European Union announced it was lifting some economic sanctions, perhaps opening the way for Iran to resume shipments of oil and gas and allowing banks to unfreeze some Iranian assets.
While those acts attracted positive reactions from both the United States and Iran and laid the basis for formal talks in about two weeks, the reaction was less supportive among hard-liners in the two countries.
More seriously, there has been no sign that a bipartisan congressional coalition is yet willing to abandon its effort to undercut the talks by tightening economic sanctions against Iran, despite signs the Iranians actually may be willing to confine their future activities to peaceful projects and halt work on developing a nuclear bomb.
President Barack Obama has warned he would veto a resolution stepping up the sanctions. But its sponsors seem undeterred and claim enough votes in both houses to enact it, even over a presidential veto.
The good news here is that the sponsors of the latest such proposal — Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., the No. 3 Democratic leader; Bob Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; and Mark Kirk, R-Ill. — have so far confined themselves to issuing verbal warnings to the Iranians of the consequences of continuing nuclear development.
But the bad news is it remains a potential source of real trouble which, if passed, could either kill the talks or, even worse, ensnare the United States in yet another Middle East war if the negotiations leave Iran with a capacity for nuclear enrichment that convinces Israel it needs to attack.
The measure's most dangerous provision, according to various published reports, reads as follows:
"If the government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States should stand with Israel and provide in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic and economic support to the Government of Israel in the defense of its territory, people and existence."
While not requiring U.S. action, critics note the language suggests the mere existence of an Iranian "nuclear weapon program" would be sufficient to compel Israel to attack "in legitimate self-defense." It says the U.S. "should" provide such an Israeli attack with "military, diplomatic and economic support" according to U.S. laws and congressional constitutional responsibility.
In effect, that could enable the hard-liners who control the Israeli government to kill the talks or try to drag the United States into a war against Iran if they decide that Iranian compliance with the current agreement is insufficient to protect Israel.
The measure also would enable Congress to kill any agreement the West reaches with Iran by overriding Obama's decision to waive existing sanctions.
To be fair, it's a long way from here to there. Even if such a measure passed Congress (both houses previously have passed resolutions urging increased sanctions), the Obama administration likely would continue to restrain any Israeli effort to precipitate hostilities.
Besides, in the end, the bright promise of an agreement between the West and Iran may not be realized.
Hardliners could prevent the Iranian government from making an agreement or the Obama administration could decide Iran has failed to do enough to eliminate its capacity for producing a nuclear weapon. Indeed, a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, published Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, stressed how complex and drastic the steps would be to produce a permanent agreement.
Failure of the best opportunity for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement in many years would be most unfortunate. But it would be a lot less unfortunate than for the United States to be pulled into a war against Iran because Israel doesn't like how the nuclear talks are proceeding.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.