A draft version of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 was introduced in the United States Senate on December 19. Section 2 (5) reads, "if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States Government 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, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence."
The provision is non-binding and echoes a Senate resolution passed in April but it gives the resolution more force and prominence. News accounts in Israel reported the April measure as a solid commitment. A headline in the Times of Israel (Feb. 28) declared, "Resolution would promise US aid if Israel forced to hit Iran." Foreign policy commentator Sheldon Richman has pointed out, "This section [of the proposed act] is legally nonbinding, but given the clout of the bill's chief supporter outside of Congress – the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), leader of the pro-Israel lobby – that is a mere formality."
Hawks within Israel have long argued that Iran has a hidden nuclear weapons program and not merely the revealed enrichment program for purposes of domestic energy. They claim Iran will move to destroy Israel unless its nuclear capacity is preemptively disabled. In 1981, Israel used the same logic to justify a surprise air strike that eliminated a nuclear reactor being constructed near Baghdad, Iraq. If Israel takes similar "military action" against Iran, then America will be committed to "stand with Israel" – at least if the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act passes Congress in its current form.
Mutual defense treaties are commonplace. They are international agreements by which nations pledge to defend each other, usually in response to one of them experiencing an act of war. Under the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, however, no traditional act of aggression against Israel need occur; Israel could initiate military force. The purpose of mutual defense treaties is to provide a deterrent to aggression. But, in practice, they can result in local conflicts becoming global ones. With so many geopolitical interests in the Middle East, the combination of Israel and America confronting Iran would almost certainly become global.
Many aspects of the proposed act are far from clear. For example, the legality of granting another nation the de facto ability to declare war on America's behalf is questionable, to say the least. So why is it being pushed by Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations?
The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act is best understood as a direct slap across President Obama's face. The act is a blatant attempt to undercut the deal he negotiated with Iran in November, through which Obama hoped to snatch some claim to legacy. The gist of the deal: Obama agreed to relieve the longstanding economic sanctions against Iran in return for a six-month lull in Iran's uranium enrichment program. The agreement was meant to provide a breathing spell for diplomacy to function. The agreement also bypassed Congress because the $6 to $7 billion in promised sanction relief can be provided by executive order.
Perhaps Congress objected to being irrelevant… again. Some senators are undoubtedly reacting to the influential "Israeli lobby"; the AIPAC has been especially active in support of the act and it has been generous in financing the election campaigns of several of its advocates. Other senators may sincerely believe Obama showed weakness toward Iran.
The mixture of motives has produced a remarkable sight. Democrats, like Senator Charles Schumer, are joining hands with hawkish Republicans in a rare display of bipartisanship. It is enough to make Obama long for obstruction. When the act was introduced, sponsorship was split down the middle: 13 Democrats, 13 Republicans. As of December 27, the act reportedly had 47 co-sponsors; in the Senate, that is 20 votes short of the majority that would make the act immune to a presidential veto.
Obama is said to be "pleading" with fellow Democrats to relent because even discussing the act in Congress could make Iran scuttle the hard-won agreement. In a Time magazine interview (Dec. 9), Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that a new set of sanctions, even delayed ones, would mean"the entire deal is dead," including future negotiations. Zarif added, "We do not like to negotiate under duress." Part of the duress would be harsh new terms on which any final deal with Iran would rest. The act would allow Obama to waive new sanctions only if the final deal prohibits Iran from enriching new uranium for any purpose whatsoever.
Controversy over the act remains muted due to the adjournment of Congress, Christmas vacations, the flap of Obamacare and the media's determination to provide perspective on 2013 and predictions about 2014. But there are some early indications of explosions to come. On the same day the draft act was introduced, for example, the Huffington Post ran the headline "Saboteur Sen. Launching War Push"; included was a photo of Menendez speaking at a podium that bore an AIPAC logo. The article caused a furor in the Jewish-American community and protests in Israeli newspapers such as Ha'aretz. Suddenly, the Huffington Post headline changed to "Iran Sanctions Bill From Sens. Bob Menendez And Mark Kirk Could Endanger U.S. Negotiations." The photo disappeared.
The headline refers to the act as the "Iran Sanctions Bill" because it would strengthen possible sanctions even as Obama tries to entice Iran with the prospect of further lightening them. But Menendez insists that the sanctions would be slammed on only if Iran does not comply with the negotiated deal.
What constitutes non-compliance? On December 27, FOX News reported on what might be an example; or, at least, it is being viewed as one by rebellious senators. The FOX headline read, "Top Dem presses Obama on Iran sanctions after centrifuge surprise." The surprise came in the form of a statement from Iran's nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi. In order to quiet criticism from anti-American hardliners, he announced the testing of a new generation of centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium. Technically, Iran is allowed to do so. The agreement prevents the new centrifuges from being added to the enrichment program for six months but it does not prohibit the testing of ones already in development. According to Menendez, the announcement revealed Iran's "true intentions" – that is, the intention to create nuclear weapons.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agrees; he has repeatedly hinted at the need to bomb Iran. And he has been uncharacteristically critical of the United States for signing the six-month deal with Iran, calling it "not a historic agreement" but "a historic mistake." In a written statement, he added that Israel was not bound by the agreement because "[t]he regime in Iran is dedicated to destroying Israel and Israel has the right and obligation to defend itself with its own forces against every threat." A spokesman for Netanyahu informed CNN that Israel was not ruling out the possibility of an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
If such a bombing occurs, it will be in spite of the best information available which indicates no evidence of a current nuclear weapons program. The report by nuclear physicist Yousaf Butt, with the Federation of American Scientists, is typical: "The best intelligence about Iran's nuclear program indicates that no nuclear weapons work is going on in Iran right now. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has confirmed that he has 'a high level of confidence' that no such work is going on now. This reflects the consensus view of 16 different U.S. Intelligence agencies. It says far more than merely that there is no evidence now for any nuclear weapons development work in Iran. It says there is actual concrete high-quality evidence that Iran is not making nuclear weapons, and that the leaders in Tehran have not even made a decision to embark on such a program." (Note: This is not an endorsement of Iran; it is merely recounting the evidence.) Stories of Iran's nuclear weapons program begin to resemble the Weapons of Mass Destruction hysteria that prompted the invasion of Iraq and 12 years of constant war.
But there is one significant difference between Iran today and Iraq post-9/11. Americans do not want war with Iran. And this is an election year.
Many outcomes are possible when Congress returns in January. Majority leader Harry Reid carefully refused to promise that he would bring the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act to a Senate vote. Reid is not one of the act's sponsors, and he is notoriously loyal to Obama. But his refusal may create awkwardness. It is not merely Republicans being denied; it is Democrats upon whom both Reid and Obama depend for support. Perhaps the act will come to a veto-immune vote, and Obama will exercise one of the act's options; namely, he can waive most of the provisions by certifying every 30 days that Iran is in compliance with the temporary deal and negotiating in good faith.
Whichever of a dozen scenarios may happen, it is increasingly likely that Iran will walk.