Thursday, April 9, 2015

Open letter to 47 members of U.S. Senate


To its credit, the Obama administration has consistently rejected calls for military action against Iran and has engaged the country's leadership in an attempt to negotiate a agreement. This marks one of the few instances where the public good is being served by an administration that has otherwise been unfalteringly loyal to the substantial political and economic interests that dictate most of US policy. The issue is urgent because of the need on the one hand to eliminate sanctions against Iran as soon as possible, as sanctions tend to do far more harm to civilians than to national elites (recall Iraq), and on the other hand to reach an accord with Iran that prevents the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, preferably before war-pigs in both the US and Israel have a chance to escalate the confrontation beyond the possibility of an agreement, as civilians would also be the ones to suffer the most in the case of military conflict.
Anyone who has been paying attention to US politics over the past five years or so is aware of the lengths to which Republicans in Congress have been going to undermine the Obama administration, despite the fact that the bulk of the administration's policies and actions differ only from those of Republicans in rhetoric. This obstinacy has further pushed those of us--incidentally the majority of the US population--who believe that Obama's policies are not progressive enough (e.g., those of us who support universal health care, international cooperation, and adequate social services) into the political margins.

In several cases -- the 2013 partial shutdown of the US government being an obvious example -- Obama's opponents in Congress have openly abandoned their own interests (and, less surprising, those of the public) in their fanatical zeal to oppose anything the Obama administration supports. This political short-sightedness became even more dangerous to the US public (as well as the rest of the world) when congressional opponents to Obama -- with the help of the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu -- began trying to sabotage negotiations between the White House and the Iranian government regarding the latter's uranium-enrichment activities. Despite their frequent appeals to US and Israeli security, none of these politicians seem to have seriously considered the consequences of their actions. As the rest of the world is not particularly interested in maintaining economic sanctions, the most likely alternative to an agreement would be military action, presumably aimed at regime change. Iran, however, is far from defenseless in terms of conventional military strength, and it's not clear that the US government has the political or economic resources to invade and occupy yet another country in the region, while Israel, the most likely partner in such an endeavor, has much of its resources tied up in the ongoing military occupation and terrorizing of Palestine. Not surprisingly, most of the rest of the world will opposes military action.

Escalating the risk of war

On 9 March 2015, 47 Republican senators attempted to undermine the negotiations directly by addressing an open letter directly to the Iranian government, essentially claiming that they would nullify any agreement between the US President and the Iranian government as soon as Obama's term expires. Not surprisingly, this letter was not well-received by any of the parties to the negotiations. While denouncing this letter as outright treason, as some have done, is perhaps a bit extreme, it does raise some questions about whether these 47 people should actually be US senators.
This is not to propound an idealistic description of the US Congress as a democratic institution populated by enlightened representatives who seek to serve the public good. As a revolutionary socialist, my perception of the US government is far more realistic than that. In order to retain its legitimacy, however, Congress has to at least appear capable of serving the public, at least some of the time. The increasing boldness with which outright reactionary positions are being propounded suggests that power disparities in the US have once again reached a point where politicians no longer feel compelled to even pretend to be acting in the interests of the majority of the population. In this context, the letter to Iran suggests that this short-sightedness has reached such an extreme that not even the threat of a violent military conflict and the possibility of it escalating to the use of nuclear weapons is considered too high a price to pay for immediate political gains.
As I consider such a position as this unacceptable, I quickly drafted the following open letter requesting an explanation for the decision to sign the letter to the Iranian government and sent a copy to each of the 47 senators who signed. As I mentioned earlier, I am not particularly interested in whether these senators were disrespectful to the President or violated any US laws. My interests are far more pragmatic: I am interested in ending economic sanctions against Iran, encouraging it to limit its use of nuclear materials to power generation and other civilian applications, and preventing yet another bloody conflict in the region. Rather than delivering an admittedly well-deserved rebuke, I framed this letter primarily as a request for an explanation, partially to get the point across in a slightly calmer manner, and partially to draw attention to how profoundly these politicians are failing at even pretending to be acting in the interests of the US (and global) public. Anyone who wishes is welcome to re-use this letter and to modify it in any way she or he sees fit.
The primary purpose of this letter is to request clarification from your office of your decision to sign a 9 March 2015 “Open Letter to the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
As a U.S. citizen living overseas, I am not always able to glean sufficient background information from reports on internal politics in the U.S.A. to form a sufficiently informed perspective of what is happening there. In the case of the letter identified above, it appears that you and 46 other senators, perhaps because you are still unable to come to terms with the idea of a black Democrat in the White House, have become so engrossed in advancing your personal interests by undermining the Obama administration that not even an issue as deadly serious as the risk of the proliferation of nuclear weapons was sufficient to induce you to pause for a moment of reflection and to place the common good over your personal agenda. Although I am not so naïve as to expect any degree of altruism from a career politician in either the Democratic or Republican party, I do expect a U.S. senator to possess sufficient maturity to be capable of weighing immediate gains against substantial risks, something you appear to have failed to do in this case.
Because I do not want you to mistake this letter for a partisan attack, please allow me to clarify that I am aligned with neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties, as I believe neither is particularly interested in the needs or interests of either U.S. workers or their counterparts elsewhere. I have in fact been opposed to many of the Obama administration's decisions over the past five years, albeit for reasons and in favor of alternatives opposite to those championed by you and your colleagues. The one point on which I and the majority of other U.S. voters are in agreement with the administration, however, is the need to negotiate an agreement with Iran rather than resort to military force. Based on the letter that you signed, it appears that you do not share this concern, and would rather risk an armed conflict than even consider a degree of political compromise. That you would risk such conflict for so selfish a gain and have failed to take into account the lessons learned from the U.S. government's previous two military adventures in the region suggests that, in addition to the emotional maturity, you lack sufficient critical capacity to serve as a U.S. senator.
Importantly, the text of the letter also seems to indicate that you lack any comprehension of the world outside Washington, D.C. I can assure you that many nations other than the U.S.A. have things like universities, scientific advisors, and even computers. Indeed, insofar as the assertions made within the letter reflect your own understanding of the constitutional system in the U.S.A., it would appear that that of your Iranian counterparts is far superior. In any case, the disrespectful tone of the letter strongly suggests that you lack both the knowledge of the world and the capacity for diplomacy required to execute your duties as a U.S. senator.
As I mentioned at the start of this letter, I am contacting your office to request clarification primarily because your actions at this point appear to be so base and childish as to be beneath contemplation by any U.S. senator. If, however, my perception of your actions is even partially correct, and especially if you did indeed sign this letter in an effort to undermine the Obama administration's negotiations and/or increase the risk of violent conflict, it would seem that the course of action most likely to salvage the legitimacy of your party and advance the interests of both the people and the government of the United States of America would be to issue a sincere public apology and then resign from office on the grounds that you lack the emotional maturity, critical capacity, and requisite knowledge to adequately fulfill your responsibilities in the U.S. Senate.

Update: 11 Sept. 2015

As my friends in Codepink pointed out earlier today, this, the 14th anniversary of the horrific terrorist attacks in New York city and Washington, D.C., is marked by an important step towards acknowledging an alternative path than the one the world has been following to escalating war and terrorism. As I mentioned previously, establishing an agreement to end sanctions against Iran rather than resorting to military force is one of the few cases where I am in agreement with the Obama administration, and I am glad that progress in this direction continues, despite the efforts of some to block or reverse it. In the time between today and my original post, I have received some answers to my inquiry. In fairness to those senators willing to defend their actions, I am posting their responses here, albeit with a few editorial notes regarding factual claims [in brackets]. If you would like to see the sources of my counter-claims, the Washington Post is hosting a fact sheet released by the State Department, and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and Media Matters for America have both created lists of common claims and rebuttals (here and here).

Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

12 April, 2015
Last week, Sen. Cruz released the following statement in response to President Obama’s agreement with Iran:
“President Obama's agreement with Iran, the details of which he has largely kept secret, is as he said ‘historic' because of the catastrophic risk it poses to the security of the United States and our allies.
[Several policy experts and physicists have declared their support for the agreement, which they say prevents the Iranian government from developing nuclear weapons.]
“The so-called deal, unilaterally arranged without any consultation with Congress, lifts sanctions and effectively puts Iran on the path to the bomb after a 10-year horizon. The likelihood of Iran using those weapons against Israel, which its leaders call ‘little Satan' and have explicitly said they would like to ‘erase off the map' and America, which it calls ‘the Great Satan,' is unacceptably high.
[That's 15 years, some provisions last 25 years, and Iran is still under other treaty obligations not to pursue nuclear weapons after that.]
“Under no circumstance should a U.S. President lift sanctions and grant nuclear capability to a nation that proudly chants ‘Death to America.'
[If "nuclear capability" refers to power generation and other non-military uses, then there Cruz is arguing that the US should interfere in another country's internal economic development because he doesn't like what some of its people say about his own country.]
“It is unfortunate that throughout these negotiations the President continually reserved his harshest language not for the Iranian regime, but for the United States Congress and the Prime Minister of Israel.
[I thought Obama's comments were remarkably mild in light of the idiotic stunts the aforementioned parties were pulling.]
“Finally, let us remember to lift those Americans who remain unjustly detained by the Iranian regime in our prayers. The President had an opportunity to speak out for their freedom yesterday and did not. We must continue to give them a voice. Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, and Jason Rezaian, must be freed and Robert Levinson must be found.
[This is not exactly pertinent to the negotiations over nuclear weapons, but, for the record, Obama has called for the release of these people.]
“President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other negotiators have publicly said the choice is between their bad deal and war. That was a false choice. America should not accept a bad deal, under any terms. The Obama Administration should have pursued a good deal that forces Iran to renounce its nuclear program, stop threatening Israel, and release our American brothers.
[The entire function of this deal was to ensure that Iran does not pursue a nuclear-weapons program. Again, there is no basis on which the US government can legitimately object Iran developing a nuclear program to provide electricity and for other non-military uses, particularly as Iran is signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.]
“This is a very bad deal and it is a grim day for America. President Obama is right to be concerned that it will likely face considerable opposition from the American people and their representatives in Congress. Because absent Congress' consent, it will not be binding when President Obama leaves office.”
[Not that any of us are still under the illusion that politicians in either party are actually interested in what the US public wants, but the majority of people favor the deal.]

John McCain (R-Arizona)

July 7, 2015
Dear Mr. Napoletano:
Thank you for contacting me to relay your concerns regarding the letter sent to Iran and signed by 47 Senators, including myself. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this important issue.
In the midst of the controversy surrounding the letter, debates over protocol and constitutional violations have overshadowed the true purpose behind it: stopping President Obama's failed Iran policy and opposing a nuclear agreement with Iran that will do untold damage to our nation's security. The Obama administration is negotiating an agreement that would lift sanctions on Iran without requiring Iran to dismantle a single element of its nuclear program or cease the military dimensions of a nuclear program. These disastrous concessions mean that when the agreement expires, Iran would retain its break out capacity as a nuclear power with the necessary means to deliver these weapons far beyond the Middle East. The result will likely lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East as other countries in the region compete to develop a nuclear deterrent of their own. Worse still, a nuclear Iran would only be more emboldened to destabilize its neighbors, impose its hegemony across the region, and continue its sponsorship of terrorist organizations throughout the world.
[Most of the claims here were already refuted in the previous response, save the bit about a arms race. On this point, it's worth pointing out that Iran's nuclear program dates back to the 1950's, and has not yet triggered said arms race. Partially, this is because most other countries in the region are in poor positions to undertake such an arms race, as they are reliant on US "security" aid. Notably, a major exception to this case is Israel, which is not party to the aforementioned non-proliferation treaty, and has at its command more than 200 undeclared (and therefore technically illegal) nuclear warheads. This seems far more likely to trigger an arms race in the region than Iran's program. If an arms race is a legitimate concern, the best course of action would be to declare the entire region a nuclear-weapons-free zone.]
While we must give diplomacy a chance, I am deeply concerned by certain elements of the proposed agreement including the continued development of advanced centrifuges capable of producing potential nuclear bomb material at a high rate. I also want to see the military dimensions of the program and their domestic uranium enrichment capacity addressed and resolved responsibly. Furthermore, it appears that this interim deal is only temporary and does not provide a long-term solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions. When this 'comprehensive' agreement expires, Iran will likely resume its nuclear weapons program without the threat of the international sanctions regime to deter them.
[As stated previously, Iran is bound by other agreements to avoid pursuing nuclear weapons. Should it break those agreements, it would again be subject to sanctions.]
For these reasons, I cosponsored S. 269, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015. This legislation would impose new sanctions on Iran while negotiations for a final agreement are underway. Furthermore, this legislation provides congressional oversight over any deal and allows for sanctions to be reinstated if a final agreement is not reached or if Iran breaks its commitments and continues to build a nuclear weapon. This legislation was introduced on January 27, 2015 and is currently being considered in the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
This letter was also intended to express dissatisfaction with how President Obama is handling the negotiations and reaffirm the role of the Congress in approving any agreement. The Obama administration is contemplating using a United Nations Security Council vote on its agreement with Iran to impose international legal obligations on the United States while circumventing Congress. That the President is looking for ways to bind the next president to the agreement while bypassing Congress is deeply troubling. This is why I recently co-sponsored S. 615, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which provides for congressional review and oversight of agreements relating to Iran's nuclear program. This bipartisan bill would force the President to submit the full text of any agreement to Congress. It would also forbid the Administration from suspending congressional sanctions if Congress determines the agreement does not protect our national security interests.
[UN agreements do not circumvent Congress. A senator should know this. A senator should also be aware that the agreement has been submitted to Congress. Finally, if the point of the letter was to express dissatisfaction with Obama, why was it sent to Tehran instead of the White House?]
The deadline for concluding a comprehensive nuclear agreement was November 24, 2014. This deadline has now been extended by an additional seven months to July 1, 2015. I am concerned that these protracted negotiations have done nothing to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions but have instead drawn the international community into a false sense of security.
Please rest assured that I will continue working with my colleagues in Congress to keep the pressure on the Iranian government to roll back all aspects of its malign activities. I will also be pushing the President to submit to Congress any agreement relating to Iran's nuclear program to ensure that there is proper transparency and accountability to the American people.
Again, thank you for contacting me on this important issue. Please feel free to do so again regarding this or any other matter of concern.
John McCain
United States Senator

Rob Portman (R-Ohio)

September 6, 2015
"Why I oppose the Iran nuclear deal"
Cleveland Plain Dealer
There are few votes I take in the Senate that have such a profound effect on our national security as the upcoming vote on the Iran nuclear deal. That's why I reviewed it so thoroughly.
I read the agreement carefully, attended classified briefings and listened to the debate in Senate committees, and on the Senate floor. I talked to experts on both sides of the issue and listened to Ohioans. I measured the agreement according to the criteria our government and members of the international community had announced.
The broad goal, laid out by Congress, the Obama administration, and the U.N. Security Council, was that Iran would suspend all enrichment-related activities and not be permitted a path to ever pursue a nuclear weapons program. We also consistently maintained that any agreement must contain verifiable and enforceable mechanisms to ensure compliance.
I hoped that, with U.S. leadership, a strong agreement would meet the longstanding U.S. and internationally accepted criteria.
Unfortunately, after reviewing the terms of the agreement, I have concluded that these criteria were not met. The deal should be rejected.
We must restore consensus to keep Iran isolated economically and diplomatically, until Iran agrees to the reasonable terms on which the United States and the international community have long insisted.
[Would Mr. Portman please explicate what these "reasonable terms" are and how the proposed agreement deviates from them?]
Some will say that this is impossible. I disagree and respectfully quote the president and Secretary of State John Kerry: No agreement is better than a bad agreement. This is a bad agreement. We can do better.
Under the deal, the Iranians can continue research and development on more advanced centrifuges and resume full enrichment in 15 years. Inspections are not "anytime, anywhere," as administration officials suggested. Iran could delay the inspection of suspected nuclear sites for up to 24 days.
[Yes, Iran could technically pursue "full enrichment" (I assume he means here 90% or higher) after the agreement expires, but then it would be violating the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and would once again be subject to sanctions. And, yes, under certain circumstances, Iran could possibly delay inspections (of sites that are under 24-hour surveillance) up to an hypothetical maximum of 24 days, but this still would not be enough time for Iran to actually hide evidence of any violations to the agreements. Contrary to what those who still maintain that Hussein was secretly operating a nuclear-weapons program would have you believe, the resources required to manufacture a nuclear weapon are not very easy to hide. On the other hand, unless Mr. Portman has another deal to propose, Iran's facilities will be subjected to precisely 0 inspections, and could be used to pursue full enrichment immediately.]
If the Iranians cheat, we would have to employ a convoluted process to restore sanctions. The inspections regime is subject to side deals involving the U.N., the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran that none of us is allowed to see.
[These claims are patently false. On the first point, the process actually makes it easier to restore sanctions than to block them, and on the second, the IAEA is the standard international agency responsible for overseeing every nation's nuclear programs, and every nation's report to it is confidential. This is not a side deal, it is standard procedure.]
Based on recent press reporting, Iran will be allowed to use its own inspectors and equipment to report on the possible military dimensions of suspected nuclear work at one of its most secretive military facilities at Parchin. Allowing a country accused of hiding a secret and illegal nuclear weapons program to implement verification measures for a facility where this program is believed to have been hidden undermines the president's claim that the Iran deal "is not built on trust, it is built on verification."
[The use of the phrase "Based on recent press reporting" serves as a nice disclaimer here, and indicates that Mr. Portman is probably well aware of the fact that said "reporting" was unequivocally refuted by the IAEA.]
Most troubling is that this agreement ends Iran's international isolation without ending the behavior that caused Iran to be isolated in the first place.
[Actually, this is what rejecting the deal would probably do, as it is highly unlikely that the rest of the world will continue with economic sanctions if this deal fails.]
The nuclear program is part of a broader Iranian strategy that is dangerous and destabilizing. According to some estimates, Iran could receive up to $150 billion in sanctions relief early in the agreement, with or without sustained compliance, which will encourage the Iranians to cause trouble, not discourage them from bad behavior.
[I'm not sure where Mr. Portman pulled that $150 billion from, unless he is adding the $100 billion that US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said Iran would not be getting to the $50 billion that he said it would be getting. In either case, no, Iran will not receive this relief if it does not comply with the agreement. Mr. Portman's claim here is once again false. Moreover, Iran is expected to use the relief it does receive to sustain its economy, not "cause trouble."]
Within five years, the agreement lifts the embargo on conventional weapons, and it lifts the ballistic missile embargo within eight years. At a minimum, this deal will ensure that Iran remains a threshold nuclear power, but with resources to hurt our interests and allies in the region, including Israel. I believe it is clear that the deal, as currently written, could also set off a nuclear and conventional arms race in the Middle East.
[The UN Security Council resolution that established the embargoes on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles states that said embargoes should have been lifted once Iran agreed to begin negotiations, but this agreement extends them for another 5 and 8 years respectively. I've already addressed the claims regarding an arms race in my responses to McCain's letter.]
I have been involved in international negotiations, and I understand that both sides must make concessions. But we must have the courage to stand behind our legitimate public pronouncements, the red lines; whether it's against the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the violation of cease-fire agreements by the Russians and their proxies in Ukraine, or our commitment that Iran stop and dismantle its march toward nuclear weapons.
The administration's position — that it is this agreement or war — is simply not true. We have options short of armed conflict. Supporters draw a false analogy between this deal and President Ronald Reagan's arms-control negotiations with the Soviets. Reagan succeeded by increasing the pressure, not reducing it. He increased the cost of bad behavior until that behavior changed. He did not strike a deal unless it fulfilled the core goals with which he started; he never wanted a deal for its own sake.
We should not approve an agreement that fails to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and does nothing to address Iranian behavior that threatens our allies and our interests. We should reject this agreement and tighten the sanctions on a bipartisan basis. The president should then use the leverage that only America possesses to negotiate an agreement that meets the longstanding goals of Congress and the president himself.
[The previous three paragraphs are largely rhetorical flourish and devoid of any concrete claims or substance. Regarding the call to "tighten" sanctions, I've already pointed out that most other countries involved are unlikely to uphold further sanctions if the US is incapable of following through on this agreement.]

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