The U.S. Congress is presently reviewing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)*, a deal concluded on July 14, 2015 by Iran and the major world powers. It is likely that Congress will reject the Deal in September; but it may not be able to override the inevitable presidential veto later. Here we speculate also on what is likely to happen to oil prices, on reactions of Iran, Arab oil producers, and on Israeli pre-emption against Irans nuclear facilities.
The September Congressional Vote
Congress has sixty days to consider the Deal, based on what the White House reveals to them about the details. The outcome of the vote is not certain; it depends on the vote of a few Democratic Senators who are divided on the issue and may wish to examine also any secret side agreements. However, its likely that a coalition will form between senators who are skeptical about the Deal and senators who have other reasons to vote against the Administration. Specifically, many senators from states between the Rockies and the Appalachians are likely to vote against the so-called Clean Power Plan (CPP)really part of the White House War on Coalwhich is being forced upon the nation by the EPA. There is also likely to be a protest vote from Senators who oppose the United Nations and some of its policies; there is much resentment that Obama submitted the Deal first to the UN Security Council (UNSC) for its approval in an obvious ploy to circumvent Congress; UNSC Resolution 2231 now enshrines the JCPOA nuclear agreement.
[The UN should expel Iran; the UN Charter clearly envisages the possibility of expelling a Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter... (Art. 6). But nothing of the sort was even remotely hinted at by the five permanent members of the Security Council while they were hatching the JCPOA agreement.]
If Congress rejects the Deal, the White House will have to make some careful calculations on whether a veto can be sustained. This has many psychological consequences, also for the CPP and for the outcome of the crucial December 2015 climate conference in Paris. Obviously, the White House will try to avoid having Congress override a veto a defeat with untold consequences and a great PR disasterand will frame its decision accordingly. At this stage, we dont know whether there are sufficient votes in the Senate to override such a veto. There will be intense lobbying on this issue between now and the end of the year; it will also elicit reactions from Iran and other nations that we can only speculate about.
In a recent speech at American University, Obama expressed great pride in his foreign-policy legacy. But look how Iraq and Syria have turned outnot to mention Libya.
In summary, there are many in Congress, certainly all of the Republicans, who would like to weaken the White House. So this autumn is going to be a busy time for both Parties; debates will cover not only the Iran Deal, but also the CPP and the Paris climate conference. In these disputes, any actions by Iran and its Middle East neighbors will be of great consequence, and there could be many surprises.
There has been a certain amount of speculation on whether Iran would accept the Deal. To many, approval would seem obvious in that it gives Iran much of what it wants: a lifting of sanctions, the unfreezing of about $150 billion, and the possibility of freely exporting its oil. However, ideological correctness may interfere with approval. Irans leaders are oriented to enmity towards the United States (Great Satan) and Western countries generally; some commentators think theological purity may affect their view of the Deal. Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum has pointed to this possible decision by supreme leader Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khameini and recommends preparing for such a possibility.
The Administration has not only failed to integrate the ballistic-missile issue into the talks, it derided the claim that paying attention to delivery platforms was a worthwhile endeavor. In her February 2014 testimony to Congress, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairsand chief US negotiatorWendy Sherman, likened such platforms to being almost irrelevant. By contrast, Iranian negotiators defined the negotiating parameters in their favor. By late August 2014, Irans Minister of Defense boasted: The missile issue has not been raised in the negotiations and Irans missile power will never be an issue for negotiations with anyone. Instead, after numerous extensions to the talks, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif raised the matter of ballistic-missile sanctions at the eleventh hourand won.
The missiles concession went directly against the advice of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking. More recently, in August 2015, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani claimed that UNSCR 2231 contained clauses on missiles which we will not listen to, and we do not accept....
World Oil Price
If the Deal is approved by all parties, and once Iran tries to legally export its oil production, it is important to consider the effect on the price of oil. In the past few months, the oil price has collapsed from $100 a barrel, to about $40. It may fall further to about $30at which point it reaches energy parity with the price of natural gas, at least in the US. World oil price has important international consequences; a further collapse will adversely affect the economies of Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and even the Gulf nations and Saudi Arabia. Iran may find that once it takes care of internal subsidies, it can no longer gain much revenue from exports.
Whats Iran to Do?
One option for Iranis to eliminate exports from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf producers so as to allow a higher price for Iranian oil. There are plenty of opportunities to reduce Arab oil exports; Iran can use indigenous Shiites as terrorists and sabotage loading platforms, pipelines, and even tankerswithout seeming to be involved in any obvious way. But once this strategy becomes apparent, there will be fierce retaliation on the part of Gulf producers and Saudi Arabia, who all desperately need oil revenues.
Reaction by Israel
There has been overwhelming opposition to the Deal by the Israeli public. This is understandable since Irans leaders have consistently advocated the elimination of Israelpresumably with missiles carrying nuclear warheads. But well before then, Iran can make use of its proxies, like Hezballah, which is said to have close to 100,000 rockets with conventional explosive warheads; many of these have precise targeting and could hit vital infrastructure in Israel.
All this is known and widely discussed. But Israel has important countermeasures also. It can target Hezballah forces currently fighting in Syria and add to the 1000 or so casualties that have been reported so farperhaps increasing them to 5,000 or even more. Israel can weaken Hezballah in other ways as well by making use of allies in the Lebanese Christian, Druze, and Sunni communities.
Will Israel Attack Iran and Pre-empt Irans Nuclear Development?
Israeli military action may become more likely once Obama leaves office in February 2017but perhaps even as soon as the November 2016 elections.
In the past, Israel has pre-emptively destroyed nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syriagarnering some immediate criticism, but much gratitude later on. Pre-emption against Iran is not as difficult as it looks; three matters need to be taken care of:
- Neutralizing the anti-aircraft system should not present an insuperable problem. The S-300 system being sold by Russia to Iran has its limitations; there are at least two ways it can be neutralizedand probably more.
- Planes flying from Israel to Iran will have to rely on refuelingunless Israel makes an arrangement with Saudi Arabia. Published reports tell us that Israel is updating tanker aircraft and not waiting for a modified Boeing 747 to do the job.
- Destroying the Arak nuclear installation is relatively easy. It is in the open, located in the western part of Iran near the Persian Gulf, and presents an attractive target. It is built to produce weapons-grade plutonium; the Deal calls for dismantling that option. The world will be watching.
To destroy the centrifuges producing Uranium-235 requires a different approach. Since they are well protected by being located underground, Israels planes would need special bunker-buster bombs that can penetrate the defense. Israel could rely on the US to supply such bombsafter 2016. It can purchase them elsewhere, or it can design and build its own bombs. Israel is likely to pursue all three approaches in order to maximize the psychological impact on Iran. But it will probably not take any action unless and until it is established that Iran is cheating on the Deal.
Iran Cheating and Inspection
A crucial part of the JCPOA, and by far the weakest, is the proposed inspection scheme. Iran will probably offer little cooperation to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is charged to do the inspection job. Under the Deal, Iran requires a 24-day notice, which will make cheating very difficult to prove. Then there are political problems: the IAEA is a political organization as much as a scientific one; and its report has to be agreeable to the UN Security Council (UNSC), which would then have to decide whether cheating did in fact occur. One can expect that there will be attempts at whitewashingat least while the Obama administration is still in power.
Arguments against new nuclear sanctions will include questions about the credibility of evidence, the seriousness of the infractions, the appropriate level of response, and likely Iranian retaliation, predicts Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Similarly, the U.S. would not unilaterally impose new biting sanctions, even if Iran is found to have reneged on its commitments, in the face of European opposition, which would be galvanized by pressure from European business lobbies.
Secret Side Deals: Trust but Dont Verify
The AP has confirmed a secret side deal between the IAEA and Iran on Parchin, a military test site whose existence Iran had tried to hide. The Iranians have used Parchin for tests relevant to the detonation of nuclear warheads. (The IAEA needs to know how far they got, so the Agency can set up a verification regime against future violations.) The White House had consistently promised Congress that the issue of Parchin would be resolved before any final deal; the JCPOA was nonetheless announced without that resolution.
AP has published a copy of that side deal: instead of allowing IAEA inspectors to collect evidence from Parchin, samples will be collected by Iranians using Iranian equipment; instead of allowing the IAEA to collect everything it wants, only seven samples will be handed over from mutually agreed-upon areas; instead of giving inspectors access to facilities, photos and videos will be taken by the Iranians themselves. The JCPOA is built entirely on trust, but without verify any trust may be misplaced.
To sum up: Israeli pre-emption, though feasible, is much in doubtpartly because Iraniancheating has to be internationally established, and partly because Iranian proxy actions through Hezb allah may take center stage sooner. Technically, however, the pre-emption operation should be well within Israels capabilities and may indeed become necessary.
* The JCPOA and five Annexes are described here.