The battle over the Iran nuclear deal intensified Tuesday as a key Republican House committee chairman introduced legislation to kill it, three senior Democrats endorsed it, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in anew, seeking to weaken American Jewish support for the accord.
“Oppose this dangerous deal,” Netanyahu urged some 10,000 viewers who tuned into a live webcast sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella group of more than 150 Jewish organizations.
Netanyahu, leader of the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power, has helped galvanize opposition to the deal, which he charges will give Iran the ability to annihilate Israel. The unprecedented, repeated intrusions by a foreign leader into domestic U.S. politics have fueled serious tensions with the Obama administration.
While polls recently have charted a drop in overall backing for the accord, they’ve shown support by a majority of Jewish Americans. In an effort to dilute that support, and remind the White House that he won’t remain silent, Netanyahu evoked the specter of the Holocaust.
“The days when the Jewish people could not or would not speak up for themselves, those days are over,” he said. “Today we can speak out. Today we must speak out. And we must do so together.”
Designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal, the agreement has been President Barack Obama’s top second-term foreign policy goal. It was produced last month after two years of negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
The deal would strictly limit for up to 15 years Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, the process that generates fuel for both power plants and warheads, and produce plutonium for weapons, and would subject Tehran to the most intrusive international inspection system ever devised, much of it remaining in place indefinitely. In return, Iran would be freed of nuclear-related sanctions that have devastated its economy.
Critics charge that the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, which will verify Iranian compliance, won’t be able to detect secret bomb-making efforts, especially as the restraints on Iran’s enrichment capabilities begin to relax after 10 years. They also claim that billions of dollars freed up by the lifting of sanctions will allow Tehran to bolster the Assad regime in civil war-wracked Syria and groups like Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia, that are on the U.S. terrorism list.
Defenders and opponents are pouring millions of dollars into lobbying and media campaigns as Congress holds hearings as part of a 60-day review of the deal, which Obama was to defend in a major speech on Wednesday at American University, in Washington.
Only 15 days into the review, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a resolution Tuesday that would bar the lifting of nuclear-related U.S. sanctions on Iran, thereby effectively killing the deal.
The consequences for global security from this agreement are too great.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.
Obama has pledged to veto such legislation. He would have to rally 34 votes in the Senate and 146 in the House to stave off an override.
“I wish the Obama administration had negotiated a verifiable, enforceable and accountable agreement,” Royce said in a statement.
He also expressed concerns that Iran would reap “a cash bonanza” that it could use to bolster its regional muscle, and he objected to provisions to end a ban on conventional arms sales to Iran after five years and an embargo on Iranian imports and exports of ballistic missile technologies after eight years.
He acknowledged that approval of his legislation “would roil some diplomatic waters.” But echoing an assertion by other opponents, Royce contended that maintaining U.S. sanctions would continue to deter international investments in Iran.
“This deal gives up too much, too fast, to a terrorist state, making the world less safe,” he said.
He released a copy of a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, the chief U.S. negotiator, in which he added his voice to calls that the administration provide to Congress for review “side agreements” between the IAEA and Iran outlining how Iran will address allegations that it researched a nuclear warhead at least until late 2003.
Kerry last week told Congress that arrangements between the agency and its member states are confidential, but that the United States has been briefed on the IAEA-Iran agreements and is satisfied that they will address the “possible military dimensions” issue.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano is to brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the agency’s arrangements with Iran behind closed doors on Wednesday.
A senior member of the committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., took to the Senate floor to announce her support for the deal after a meeting between Democratic lawmakers and ambassadors from countries that participated in the negotiations.
“It was very important to hear from them that they believed if we walked away, it would play right into the hands of the hard-liners in Iran, Iran would build a nuclear weapon, they’d have lots of money from everybody else but America, and it’d be a very dangerous situation,” she said.
Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also lined up behind the agreement.
“In this deal, America has honored its best traditions and shown that patient diplomacy can achieve what isolation and hostility cannot,” said Kaine.
Referring to Obama’s threat to use military force to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Kaine asserted that the accord was “far preferable to any other alternative, including war.”
Netanyahu took the opposite tack, contending that the deal could allow Iran to produce “hundreds of weapons” and ignite a nuclear arms race with its regional Sunni Arab rivals.
“We’re told this deal buys us time, but 10 to 15 years is no time at all,” Netanyahu said. “By keeping the deal Iran can get in a decade or so not just to one bomb, but to many bombs.” Asked if there were a deal he would support, Netanyahu said he had hoped an agreement would dismantle, not disable, Iran’s nuclear program.
Barring that possibility, he said he proposed a deal that would limit Iran’s nuclear program and link the lifting of sanctions to a change in Iran’s behavior, including ending calls for the destruction of Israel and cutting funding to proxies around the Middle East.
“It’s wrong to say I offered no alternatives and I wouldn’t accept any deal,” Netanyahu said.
The White House ran Twitter commentary as Netanyahu spoke. One tweet pointed to a petition published Monday in Israel in support of the deal, signed by current and retired Israeli security brass, including former Shin Bet internal security service heads Ami Ayalon and Carmi Gillon.
Netanyahu pointed instead to the overwhelming opposition to the deal – 70 percent – among his public.