Nuclear Agreement with Iran May Become Midterm Election Fodder in Congress

Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to the secretary of state Colin Powell, says there are three different groups of Republicans that would like to see the Iran nuclear deal fail.

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The long-awaited nuclear deal with Iran is almost complete. Just one hitch that might prevent the Obama administration from signing the agreement: the United States Congress.

Here to discuss what is happening is our regular guest, Larry Wilkerson. Lawrence Wilkerson is a retired U.S. Army soldier and former chief of staff to the United States secretary of state Colin Powell. Wilkerson is an adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary, where he teaches national security.

Thank you so much for joining us, Larry.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks for having me, Sharmini.

PERIES: So, Larry, it appears that the Republicans are preparing for another political crisis over the Iran nuclear deal. They suspect that the Obama administration will bypass Congress on the new deal and lift some of the existing sanctions. What’s happening?

WILKERSON: I don’t think it’s just in the Republican Party. I think it’s also people like Robert Menendez, who is from the Democratic Party, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a powerful individual. And I think what’s happening is that essentially you have people who are very afraid that we might have, after all these months during the Joint Plan of Action and then the extension to 24 November, a successful deal. And in order to make this deal once it is concluded further successful, we have to have a situation where the president cannot lift, not terminate, but suspend sanctions on a case-by-case basis while the Iranians respond to that suspended sanction or sanctions and prove over time that they are trustworthy and going to do what they have agreed to do under the negotiations. Then the Congress would be called in to actually terminate, to lift the sanctions, because that’s necessary. Legislative action will be necessary. So this is a very understandable modus operandi, if you will, that the president has engaged upon.

PERIES: So do you think this carrot-and-stick policy with the Iranians will be measurable and will be something that the other P5+1 will agree to as well?

WILKERSON: I hope so. I think the P5+1 and the E3+3–all involved in the multilateral negotiations, if you will–have a few members amongst them, shall I say, that are more recalcitrant than others, perhaps–people who come to mind, for example, are the French–and that maybe they might have some other stipulations. But in the end, I think it’s going to come down to whether the United States and Iran, on a more or less bilateral basis, but within the backdrop of the multilateral negotiations (and the ultimate deal will be there) can come to a way of doing this that satisfies both our concerns that the Iranians are doing what they have promised to do, are under intrusive inspection, both cameras and people, are being responsible in the way they’re carrying out their end of the deal, and at the same time the Iranians can be sure and can trust that we will in fact, as they do do their part of the deal, suspend or lift the sanctions that go along with that part of the deal.

This is the intricacy and complexity of the negotiation, but it’s also its strength on both sides. We both can see, action by action, whether the other side is trustworthy or not. And as we move through this process and as the Iranians do what they’re supposed to do and we do what we’re supposed to do with regard to sanctions, then we get down the road a ways and we come to a point where we can make this more or less permanent or near permanent. And that’s when the Congress would be called in to actually lift the sanctions, so that the Iranians, having demonstrated their trustworthiness, can then live a more normal–more normal economically, in particular–life.

PERIES: Larry, what are some of the more moderate concerns on the part of the Republicans in terms of the sanctions, as well as the agreement?

WILKERSON: I think their concern–Sharmini, you really have a couple of different components to this. You have some who are viscerally concerned that the Iranians can’t be trusted, period, and what they want, in essence, is war. They want us to drop bombs on Iran. They want war. And what that’s going to produce, of course, is nothing but a decision to go nuclear, and Iran will be a fait accompli–there will be another nuclear power in the Gulf. That’s one group.

Then there’s another group that really is concerned about the president and the State Department and the P5+1 and others involved in these negotiations’ ability to construct a sound and reasonably trustable agreement.

And then you have another group that is concerned about this president personally. They don’t think that he is capable of concluding anything but a false or a fallacious or an irresponsible agreement with Tehran. And they want to use that politically to defeat the Democrats in the midterms, and ultimately to embarrass the president. And they also want to use it because they viscerally feel that way.

So you’ve got different components in both the Democratic and the Republican Party who are concerned about this.

The bottom line, however, is the Congress, in its collective responsibility vis-à-vis this issue, voted that the president would have the ability to suspend the sanctions if he were able to conclude an agreement, and in this case a really well-crafted agreement, where it’s action-for-action, suspension for suspension for trustworthy and considered and sustained action by the Iranians. If that’s the situation and the Congress has voted on that collectively, then the Congress can’t now renege on its having done that. It’s like the Congress saying to itself, well, we really made a big mistake in doing this; we shouldn’t have done this.

But more importantly than that, Sharmini, this is the only way that it can work. We’ve been through the six months of the Joint Plan of Action, plus the extension to 24 November. The Iranians have done everything–I emphasize: everything–that they were asked to do. They have been completely trustworthy throughout this process. We have made more progress in the last six to eight months than we have the last 20 years in terms of the Congress’s major–the nation’s major purpose and objective, which is to stop the Iranians’ program from being able to make a nuclear weapon. We’ve made more progress. This agreement will codify, solidify, and extend that progress and deepen and broaden that progress. And it will only do that has the Iranians step-by-step prove that they are trustworthy, that they are doing with the agreement calls for, and if we in response to that suspend that particular part of the sanction that that particular action calls for. And ultimately, when we get down to the end of this, however long it might be (and I suspect it’ll be some time), the Congress will have to start legislative action to actually lift the sanctions, to terminate them. But that’s only when the Iranians have proved themselves trustworthy and have done everything that the agreement calls for.

So it’s not perfect. Nothing is ever perfect. What could they cheat? Yes, somewhere in there. But we have a better opportunity under the conditions of this agreement and the conditions I’ve just described–in suspending and doing and suspending and doing–than we’ve ever had before to discover if they are indeed cheating. So this is a win-win solution for both sides. But the win-win on the U.S. side means the president has to have the ability to do this response-for-response suspension of the sanctions; and on the Iranian side, that they believe we are doing this and are going to continue to do it. So it’s a win-win for both sides. And I hope that the better minds in the Congress ultimately figure that out and that they figure out that part of the reason this has happened is because of their very smart collective action on sanctions and that now we’ve got to let that very smart action play itself out.

PERIES: Right. Larry, you can attribute some of the progress made to the change in leadership with the presidency of Rouhani on the Iranian side. But here do you think some of the resistance is escalating or crisis-making because of the pending elections?

WILKERSON: The midterms have something to do with it, for sure. I mean, you can’t ever count that out for politicians who have to win their seats back or win a seat for the first time. And the Republicans do have a good chance of increasing by ten or 12 seats their already considerable majority in the House. And more importantly to the Republicans, including me, is they have an opportunity to win the Senate–not by very much, probably at most 51-47, with two independents being in there, maybe three independents if the gentleman from Kansas wins.

So, yes, to answer your question, it’s important. But right now we need to look beyond that. And I hope and I pray that a majority of the Congress will look beyond that and look to the interest of this country and the interests of the region–which is not a very stable region right now, I might add. The only country in Southwest Asia that’s reasonably stable is Iran. So we need to have a better relationship with Iran. We need to get this deal in effect. We need to start working it, action for action. And we need to use that to spin off into other issues, like Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and so forth, ultimately the long-term security of Israel. We need to spin off into those with Iran on our side, or at least seeing our common interest and working on those common interests, rather than having Iran as a spoiler all along the way.

PERIES: Right. Thank you so much for joining us, Larry.

WILKERSON: Thank you for having me, Sharmini.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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