The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act is to diplomacy what Sharknado is to meteorology or ichthyology. Well, that's not a perfect analogy. Both the NWFIA and Sharknado are jokes, but Sharknado was so bad it was good, whereas the NWFIA is just bad. The NWFIA would institute a new round of crippling sanctions should we fail to reach an agreement with Iran or if Iran fails to negotiate in good faith. This in and of itself sounds reasonable--at least to American ears, and it might not necessarily lead to war. But there are a couple of kickers in the bill that make a war with Iran almost inevitable.
First Kicker-The Right To Enrich Uranium
Section 2(b)(3) of the bill states:
the Government of Iran does not have an absolute or inherent right to enrichment and reprocessing capabilities and technologies under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, done at Washington, London, and Moscow July 1, 1968, and entered into force March 5, 1970 (commonly known as the ``Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty'')
Actually, neither Iran nor any of the other signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty signed away their right to enrichment. William O. Beeman carefully examined this issue and concluded that though the International Atomic Energy Association has asked Iran to suspend enrichment as a confidence building measure, Iran has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty states:
1. Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with articles I and II of this Treaty
There is nothing in this text that explicitly states that signatories to the treaty may enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, but it is certainly implied. But the sponsors of the NWFIA would answer that Iran already has more than enough enriched uranium to conduct peaceful activities. They don't need any more. Section 2(a)(11) of the NWFIA emphasizes the point that Iran could conduct the type of peaceful activities guaranteed in section IV of the Non-Proliferation treaty without enriching uranium
As of the date of the enactment of this Act, 19 countries access nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without conducting any enrichment or reprocessing activities within those countries.
All this is true, but it doesn't prove that Iran has given up the right to enrich uranium. A simple thought experiment will prove this. Suppose the leaders of Iran suddenly decided to give up all of its enriched uranium in return for sanctions relief and a promise from the rest of the world to supply it with nuclear fuel rods to power its reactors. Now suppose, after handing over all of its enriched uranium, the rest of the world balked and decided to reneg on the deal. Let's ignore the fact that this wouldn't happen and if it did, it would violate the hell out of the spirit of Article IV (2) of the Non-Proliferation Agreement. This is only a thought experiment, so just pretend that Iran found itself without any enriched uranium. Under these circumstances, would Iran have the right to enrich uranium under the Non-proliferation Treaty? Of course it would, because it has the right to conduct peaceful nuclear activities under the NPT and in order to do so, this implies that Iran has the right to enrich. And if the NPT implicitly recognizes a right to enrich for peaceful purposes then it doesn't really matter how much enriched uranium Iran has acquired, nor does it matter that it could get enriched fuel rods from other countries. A right to enrich for peaceful purposes is neither enhanced by a lack of enriched uranium, nor is it diminished by a surplus of enriched uranium. A right to enrich for peaceful purposes exists independently of how much enriched uranium Iran has acquired. True, if Iran acquires too much urnatium, particularly if it acquires too much uranium enriched above 5%, it raises suspicions that its program is not for peaceful purposes. But no matter how many questions are raised, Iran still has that right to enrich. And it doesn't lose that right just because Congress says it doesn't have the right.
Make no mistake about it. The NWFIA has zero tolerance for any Iranian enrichment. Ali Gharib explores the ramifications of this requirement in more detail. I recommend you read his column.
The zero-enrichment clause is part of the reason why Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that if Congress passes this legislation, “the entire deal is dead”. No nation is going to give up its rights without getting something in return. Iran is a proud nation and its not going to be bullied into giving up its rights any more than the U.S. would be bullied into giving up its nuclear weapons just because the rest of the world demanded it. Threatening new sanctions is exactly the wrong approach now. If anything, Congress should be working on a bill to relieve more sanctions to entice Iran to be more flexible in negotiations. Senator Robert Menendez, the bill's most prominent sponsor said
“Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table,”
If Menendez is correct--if sanctions are what brought Iran to the table, then it is the promise of sanctions relief that keeps them at the table. The NWFIA does nothing to ensure Iran that any of the current sanctions will be dropped if Iran bargains in good faith. To Iran, it looks like this: If you roll over and give up your right to enrich uranium, if you do as we say--then there is no promise of sanctions relief for you. If you make a fuss--then we will punish you with more sanctions. In other words, to Iran it looks like Senator Menendez's main goal is not to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. To Iranian leaders, it looks like Menendez's main goal is to punish Iran so hard that its people will rise up in desperation and overthrow the government. No wonder the Iranians believe this bill demonstrates a lack of good faith on the part of the U.S. Senate.
Second Kicker- Wagging the Dog
Problematic as this is, it is not the most disturbing part of the NWFIA. Section 2(b)(5) states
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;
This passage turns the NWFIA into the Wag-the-Dog Act. For all intents and purposes, this act abdicates Congress's responsibility by giving Israel the power to decide when the U.S. will go to war. This is dangerous, considering Israel's history of alarmism. Israeli officials have been predicting since 1992 that Iran was only a few years away from getting a nuclear weapon. And Benjamin Netanyahu has been trying to goad the United States into attacking Iran for the past two years. To Netanyahu, the current situation is like Munich in 1938--you can't negotiate peace with the Iranians any more than you could negotiate peace with Hitler. The NWFIA says that the U.S. should back Israel if Israel takes military action in "legitimate self-defense". But it doesn't spell out who gets to decide whether an Israeli attack would be legitimate self-defense. Is it Israel who decides this, or the U.S. Congress? Is Israel obliged to get Congress's permission before launching an attack on Iran that will likely entangle us in a war?
Israel is widely believed to be behind the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists. What happens if Israel assassinates another one and Iran retaliates, either by firing a rocket at Israel or bombing an Israeli embassy? What happens if retaliation and counter retaliation spirals out of control into a war? Will the U.S. be obligated to enter the war on Israel's behalf? Remember, World War I was started by an assassination whose effect was multiplied through entangling foreign relations.
How likely is it that Israel will intentionally drag us into a war with Iran? To answer that question we must first ask why Israel is so hostile to negotiations that have a reasonably good chance of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
From Its Hostility to Serious Negotiations WIth the Palestinians?
Israel is involved either directly or indirectly in two sets of negotiations--the negotiations aimed at preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and the negotiations to arrange a peace deal with the Palestinians. It is a mistake to view these negotiations in isolation, because attitudes displayed in the latter set of negotiations reveal attitudes in the former.
As background, we must remember that Israel has been hell-bent for years on building new settlements in the West Bank--settlements that even Israel's own legal council, Theordor Meron, once said would violate international law and that are now making a two-state solution harder and harder to achieve. The Obama Administration has made some rather weak attempts to discourage new settlements because it knows that they are an obstacle to peace. Lara Friedman, the Director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now, has documented Bibi Netanyahu's response of using settlements to convey a big "Fuck You" to the Obama Adminstration
it is worth remembering that Netanyahu has a long and storied history of politically-timed settlement announcements during President Obama’s time in office. These include (but are not limited to):
- the September 27, 2011 approval of construction in Gilo, at a time when the Obama Administration was working feverishly to re-start negotiations;
- the May 19, 2011 announcement of action to approve 1500 new settlement units in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Netanyahu’s trip to Washington to meet with President Obama (and on the eve of President Obama’s major Middle East speech);
- the April 3, 2011 announcement of the approval of new settlement construction East Jerusalem and the West Bank, coinciding with Israeli President Shimon Peres’ visit to Washington to meet with President Obama;
- the announcement November 2010 of the opening of the settlement floodgates in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Netanyahu's meeting with Vice President Biden in New Orleans;
- the infamous March 2010 announcement of plans for massive construction in the East Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo, coinciding with Vice President Biden's visit to Jerusalem;
- the March 2010 announcement of the issuance of permits to begin settlement construction at the Shepherds Hotel in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Netanyahu's meeting with President Obama;
- the November 2009 announcement of plans for massive new construction in Gilo, coinciding with Special Envoy Mitchell's meeting with Netanyahu's envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, in London;
- the March 2009 announcement of plans to demolish 80 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, coinciding with Secretary of State Clinton's March 2009 visit to Jerusalem.
Clearly, Netanyahu’s latest settlement announcement is par for the course. Settlements and related issues—does anyone remember the Hasmonean Tunnel crisis?—have long been Netanyahu’s tried-and-true weapons when he wants to score political points with his target constituencies and thumb his nose at everybody else.
Friedman wrote this in November 2012. Since then, the Israeli Peace Now movement documented a 70 % increase in settlements for the first half of 2013 compared to the first half of 2012. And on November 3, 2013-- a day or two before Kerry was to visit Israel for another round of peace talks, Israel announced it approved construction of yet another 1700 housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Kerry gave an interview a few days after this announcement in which he warned Israel about the danger new settlements posed to the peace process. According to a Times of Israel report:
Will The Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act Trigger An Israeli Attack?
So here is what we know. Bibi Netanyahu has been cheerleading for an American attack against Iran for the last two years. The NWFIA doesn't automatically require us to go to war on Israel's behalf if Israel attacks Iran's nuclear facilities. Congress would still have to vote for a declaration of war. But the NWFIA puts Congress on record as saying it has every intention of going to war for Israel should Israel attack. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey noted in 2012 that Israel didn't have the capability to permanently destroy Iran's nuclear facilities on its own. At best, Israel could only delay its nuclear program by a few years. If Israel attacks Iran and finds itself fighting for its life, how likely is it that Congress would actually turn down an Israeli request for assistance, especially after we pass the NWFIA? Not very likely. But more importantly, how will this affect Israel's PERCEPTION of whether we would fight on Israel's behalf if it started a war with Iran?
Of course, nothing that I have written here should suggest that Israel isn't genuinely worried about Iran's nuclear program. It certainly is worried and its worries are reasonable. But the NWFIA is doubly dangerous because of this. It tells the Israelis that they can solve their problem militarily--something they would not be able to do on their own. AND a war with Iran would distract the world from Israel's role in sabotaging the negotiations with the Palestinians. It would tie the fates of the U.S. and Israel together more tightly than before and may moot American criticism of new Israeli settlements whose aim is to destroy any possibility of a Palestinian state. Thus passage of the NWFIA would solve two of Israel's problems by encouraging it to launch a costly war of dubious necessity.
For more information on this topic
Washington Post column by Senator Robert Menendez, the bill's most prominent sponsor explaining why we need the NWFIA
A point-by-point rebuttal of Senator Menendez's column by Matt Duss.
Speech by Diane Feinstein that thoroughly debunks the need for more sanctions at this time.