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The March to War

The blinkered members of the US Congress are confused. Not an unusual condition, but it is particularly evident in proposed legislation on how best to cope with Iran should it show bad faith on its nuclear program.

The American fist hovers above the Washington-Tehran negotiations, a constant reminder that sovereignty on matters nuclear tends to be qualified and held in deep storage. The question for those politicos in Washington, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is whether they would like to withdraw the fist, allowing negotiators to breathe a bit, or darken matters further.

That fist comes in the form of S. 1881, otherwise termed the Kirk-Menendez bill or the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013. The bill was introduced on December 19 by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Mark Kirk (R-IL), claiming that it would not be an obstacle, let alone a contradiction, to the Iran-P5+1 talks. AIPAC has made little secret of its enthusiasm behind the bill.

What the bill effectively does is sink the Geneva interim agreement or Joint Plan of Action signed on November 24 between Iran and the P5+1 powers while leaving, in the words of Ed Levine of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation “a Hobson’s choice between going to war with Iran and accepting Iran as an eventual nuclear weapons state.” It imposes unilateral guidelines for compliance. It targets Iran’s mining and petroleum industries (Huffington Post, Nov 19, 2013). And it makes Congress the ultimate judge of the whether Iran is behaving appropriately.

Levine makes a few arguments to support his claim, many which find their mark. The Kirk-Menendez bill tends to be expansive and purposely untenable, created in order to fail. For one, it links Iran’s compliance not merely in terms of nuclear activities but also in terms of testing missile programs, notably those “with a range exceeding 500 kilometres.” There is no time period specified for such compliance.

Another provision of the bill, notably s. 301(a)(2)(H), loops Iran with terrorism and compliance. The President must able to certify that “Iran has not directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world.” Levine puts it this way: if a bomb by Hezbollah was to detonate outside the firm of a US office in Beirut, sanctions would become effective even if Iran’s nuclear activities and negotiations were being undertaken in good faith. Nor is there a time limit on that provision either.

The question posed, not eloquent, not elegant and not even admirable, is whether a vote is required on the bill that would slap a disobedient Iran on its meaty wrists should the occasion arise. US political representatives are at odds about it. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is not convinced anybody is in a hurry, and prefers the strolling approach. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a co-sponsor, would like to take a leaf out of his counsellor’s book: “let’s talk about it.” According to Reid, “While [negotiations] are going on and while the legislative process is working forward here, I’m going to sit and be as fair an umpire as I can be.”

Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) sums it up rather neatly by his comments that he is not averse to smacking Iran, providing it is done after the chat. “I’m willing to vote for additional sanctions if negotiations falter, but right now, we’re in the midst of the first serious discussions with them for a very long time about ending their quest for nuclear weapons, and I think we need to give the diplomatic opportunity a chance” (The Hill, Jan 14).

The intervention by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), who deems the bill a “march to war”, may well be one of the more significant riposte’s to the bill’s passage. While she has a love affair with security, notably of the NSA type, it is an affair with American security. To see Israel’s interest in the subtext of the bill proved a touch irksome. “While I recognise and share Israel’s concern we cannot let Israel determine when and where the US goes to war. By stating that the US should provide military support to Israel should it attack Iran, I fear that is exactly what this bill will do.”

Her speech is not grand in its penetration, having stretches of dullness, but it does make a vital point. Regimes are not petrified. Feinstein remembered the Spain of General Franco, barred from the UN till 1955. “Spain is now a close partner of the United States and a fully democratic member of the EU.” South Africa abandoned apartheid. Vietnam opened up. The former Yugoslavia dissolved leaving independent states. In short, she believed that “a nation can change.” Kudos was granted to Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani; direct communication between Iran and the US had been facilitated.

For Feinstein, the bill represented “an egregious imposition on the executive’s authority to conduct foreign affairs.” Congress might well have done a bit more imposing over previous foreign policy decisions, but on this one, it needed to take a back seat. Keep the sanctions in check. Don’t impose any more in case they upset the applecart. Allow the negotiators to do their work.

Even conservatives and Iran hawks are against the overgilding quality of the bill. Jeffrey Goldberg, for one, argues that Iran hawks, having gotten what they want – an Iran willing to negotiate after a regime of punishing sanctions and the threat of military force – now wish “to slap additional sanctions on the Iranian regime” (Bloomberg, Jan 14). Five major newspapers – the New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, and Minneapolis Star Tribune tend to agree.

The unimaginative Republicans are getting anxious to vote on the bill, given that it has reached a near filibuster-proof quality. “We believe we ought to have that vote,” claims Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). But they, and AIPAC, may well be disappointed, at least until they get their numbers, let alone perspective, in order.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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