The View from J Street: New Sanctions on Iran Endangers Israel
by Alan Elsner
The U.S. Senate may soon face a momentous decision on whether to pass a bill to impose new sanctions against Iran and to force President Obama to take certain actions if a series of stringent conditions are not met within six months.
Many major American-Jewish organizations have come out in favor of the move and bombarded their members with arguments as to why they think it’s a good idea. Up to now, many in our community have not heard the case for the other side — why this bill is a profoundly bad and potentially extremely dangerous idea.
Supporters of the bill say it will force Iran to make major concessions on its nuclear program. But there is a very serious risk that what it actually will do is wreck negotiations between the Iranians and the United States and its partners, destroying hope of a peaceful diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis and leaving military action as the only realistic way to set back Iran’s progress toward building a nuclear weapon.
American Jews have a special interest in this debate because of Iran’s well-known threats against Israel. But rather than reacting in a knee-jerk way and arguing that anything that strengthens sanctions against Iran is automatically good, we should consider what will really make Israel safer — and how we can achieve that.
President Obama has said he would veto the bill if it reaches his desk, but supporters are now trying to mobilize the two thirds support in both houses of Congress needed to override him. If successful, this would be the first time since 1986 that Congress had successfully overridden a presidential veto on a major foreign policy issue. It would be seen around the world as a major rebuff to the President that would severely damage his credibility, especially in the Middle East.
How did we reach this point? In November, the Obama Administration, backed by five other major world powers, reached a preliminary agreement with Iran to freeze its nuclear program and roll back its most dangerous component for six months — during which the parties would attempt to negotiate a final package. The first-stage agreement was not perfect but it did accomplish several major goals that made Israel and Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East more secure: Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium beyond 5 percent, dismantle the links between its networks of centrifuges and convert its 20 percent enriched uranium to oxide so it cannot easily be not used for military purposes. No new centrifuges can be started up and international monitors can now to visit the two major enrichment sites of Fordo and Natanz daily.
Iran also agreed to halt installation work at its heavy water plant facility at Arak and to stop making fuel for it. It subsequently invited international inspectors to visit the plant for the first time in two years.
There are those, including the Israeli government, who oppose this agreement, stating that it does not go far enough — that Iran should be forced to totally dismantle its nuclear capabilities and give up the ability to enrich uranium even at low levels for civilian uses. That may be the ideal, but this demand is simply unrealistic and unattainable. And we need to remember that the key goal is getting Iran to disarm, not end its enrichment program completely. Although the international sanctions have hurt the Iranian economy, they have not brought the country to its knees. If the negotiations fail, the Iranians will continue to move forward with their program — and eventually they will acquire a bomb.
Of course, U.S. and Israeli military action could inflict damage on the program and set it back, perhaps by a few years. But such action could well throw the Middle East into a new war that could claim massive casualties — Israeli, Iranian, Lebanese, Palestinian, American and maybe others — and it would severely destabilize the international economy.
If reaching an agreement with the Iranians that totally dismantles their nuclear program is not in the cards, the question is whether an agreement that severely limits and constrains their nuclear activities and subjects them to stifling international inspections is worth having. The President and many US security experts believe it is. “It is my strong belief that we can envision a end state that gives us an assurance that even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity,” Obama said recently.
It may not be possible to reach that kind of agreement with the Iranians, but we certainly owe it to ourselves and to our allies to try. The option of ratcheting up sanctions if the negotiations fails always remains and this way we preserve international unity against Iran by acting together with our major partners and maintaining their support for the sanctions regime.
Many who support the bill are no doubt well intentioned, but the bill does not make Israel safer. Rather, by endangering the negotiations, it actually puts Israelis at greater peril. We should all be urging our elected officials to vote against it.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications for J Street.