You don't have to be a Republican to doubt Obama's Iran deal

It is no exaggeration to say that the future of the Middle East could hinge on the outcome of this vote in the US Congress

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In America too, the silly season reigns. But forget the boorish antics of one Donald Trump, and the wretched end of Cecil the lion. Lurking behind the headlines is a deadly serious issue. In September, Congress will confront the historic deal curbing Iran’s nuclear programme, and during these dog days, its members – above all those belonging to the Democratic party – must decide how they will vote. On the outcome, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say, the future of the Middle East may hinge.

The agreement will certainly be rejected in both House and Senate, where Republicans, who unanimously oppose it, have solid majorities. The crucial question is by how much. In other words, can Barack Obama hang on to enough Democrats to sustain a presidential veto?

In the 100-seat Senate, Democrats and their allies have 46 votes. If just 13 of them defect, Republicans have the two-thirds majority of 67 required to override the veto. At the moment it’s a desperately close-run thing, especially after New York’s Chuck Schumer, the probable next leader of the Senate Democrats and one of the most influential Jewish members of Congress, announced he would oppose it.

Whatever the outcome, any adverse vote (which moreover would reflect US public opinion about the agreement) would be anything but a ringing endorsement for Obama. And if the veto is overridden, as Hillary Clinton puts it, then “all bets are off”. The President would be shown to have lost control of US foreign policy. The existing sanctions regime would crumble and Iran presumably would redouble its efforts to get the bomb.

Already you can imagine the reaction of liberal bien-pensants: how a meddling Congress undid years of painstaking diplomacy at a stroke, driven by Republican warmongers who want to pick up in Iran where they left off in Iraq. Others would take the outcome as further proof that Capitol Hill – where Benjamin Netanyahu is regularly feted as Obama never is – is indeed Israeli-occupied territory. But not so fast. Yes, Congress has acted crassly on foreign policy before. But if ever a deal was a close call, it’s this one.

The goal, of an Iran whose nuclear programme is frozen for a decade or more, is certainly to be supported. Moreover, the fact that not just the US and its European allies, but also Russia and China, signed off on it, is a rare and reassuring sign that even in this disorderly world, competing powers can on occasion make common cause. It would be sad if such co-operation were casually tossed aside. But the devil, as always, lies in the details.

We are told the inspections will be unprecedentedly intrusive – but will they be intrusive enough, given Iran’s record of cheating? Nor is there any guarantee we will learn of its earlier military programme relating to nuclear weapons. Indeed, there are already signs it is already cleaning up its military facility at Parchin near Tehran, where missiles have been developed and tested, to remove evidence. It’s worth pointing out too that the Parchin alarm was sounded this week not by some Republican bloviator, but on the editorial pages of The Washington Post by David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector who is one of the country’s most respected experts on weapons proliferation, and an early sceptic about Saddam Hussein’s purported nuclear capabilities that were the pretext for the 2003 Iraq invasion.

And what of the wider context of the deal? As Schumer argued, there is absolutely no guarantee that Iran will not use its new resources to stir up more trouble in the Middle East. And in that case, would “snap-back” sanctions really snap back, just as Europe, Russia and China line up lucrative trade deals with the Islamic Republic?

Nor is Obama’s overall record in the Middle East a glittering testament to good judgement. Take his dithering over arming Syria’s moderate rebels and his refusal to honour his own red line over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, sending a message that this President will not put his money where his mouth is. Or his limited, half-hearted involvement in Libya. Or the premature troop withdrawal from Iraq that may well have hastened the rise of Isis – not to mention the mixed signals to Egypt, where the most repressive regime in decades is now in power.

Yet in the case of Iran – America’s greatest adversary in the region and the same Iran that, even as it was negotiating the nuclear deal, has been conducting a mockery of a trial of Jason Rezaian, the reporter for The Washington Post arrested more than a year ago on trumped-up charges of espionage – the President projects an arrogant, messianic certainty. Those who venture to disagree are treated with little short of contempt.


He has accused his Republican opponents of making common cause with hardliners in Iran. Not so privately, his staff belittle Schumer. No matter that for six years he has been one of the President’s most stalwart defenders in an age of relentless and destructive partisanship on Capitol Hill. Instead they urge fellow Democrats to vote against him in the upcoming leadership election.

And you don’t have to be a Netanyahu to wonder whether continued, even stepped-up, sanctions might have extracted a better deal from Iran. After all, sanctions brought Tehran to the negotiating table in the first place. But Obama will have none of it. As with Margaret Thatcher, TINA rules. There Is No Alternative.

He may well be right, that this deal, theoretically securing a 10- to 15-year moratorium on an Iranian push for a weapon, is the least bad of available options. But it’s a desperately close call. Least bad is not the same as good.