By Marino de Medici
The Joint Plan of Action signed by the Western countries and Iran has run into a major roadblock, in Washington of all places, where a large number of senators and congressmen, ever the recipients of the influence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are not so secretly bent on sabotaging it.
The new drive to impose stricter sanctions on Iran does not scuttle the agreement per se but endangers it on a critical ground, the need to build confidence between the signatory parties. When the United States opened negotiations with Iran in direct bilateral talks, the original four-step road map became a two-stage process in a groundbreaking attempt to reach a deal, leaving the fine print of two median steps to be worked out. Diplomats began to see some light in the distance. There are still major differences to be worked out and there is always the danger that the negotiations may fail.
The Obama Administration is negotiating in earnest to get to that final step, knowing that a stalemate would likely produce a strengthening of the opposition by the radical elements in Iran, a continuance of nuclear development and ultimately the failure of the attempt to neutralize once for all the nuclear "break out" capability of Iran.
On the American side, the legislators in Congress would take steps to add to Iran's burden, thus dooming the negotiations. The Netanyahu's prophecy that the Joint Plan of Action is a "bad deal" that should be shut down would be realized. Fatally, the prospect of military action, long advocated by the Israelis, would be forced on President Obama and with him, on the American people.
The crux of the problem, that pro-Israeli legislators cite in order to derail the negotiations, is the recognition on the part of the Western negotiators, that Iran will not accept a total halt to enrichment. Thus, the final step is to include a provision permitting Iran to enrich uranium "with agreed limits" on the condition that Iran builds confidence by agreeing to other steps and quickly implementing them. An important condition concerns the heavy water reactor at Arak that should be deprived of its capacity to produce plutonium. In addition, Iran should reduce the number of its centrifuges and ratify the additional protocol to its IAEA safeguard agreement.
The negotiations to stop any potential nuclear development in Iran are an intricate and delicate ballet in which the lifting of the sanctions - the goal that the new leadership in Iran is desperately pursuing - must be carefully calibrated with steps by Iran to abandon once and for all any appearance of nuclear threat.
What Obama is asking is to give peace a chance, something that the great majority of Americans would support. What the Israeli supporters in Congress are basically saying is that Obama cannot be trusted to negotiate a decent deal and that he is hiding the actual provisions of the projected agreement. This criticism is part of a larger discourse about the alleged dysfunction of Obama's foreign policy. The puzzling reality is that in the negotiations with Iran, American foreign policy has displayed a strong and well focused strategy. Tough sanctions are a part of that strategy aimed a pressuring Iran into dialogue.
The final question is not whether 59 senators pressured by the Jewish lobby AIPAC "secretly want war with Iran" but whether they are so hell bent on punishing Iran even though negotiations are underway that offer a chance of stopping Iran's nuclear program.
Most Americans would rather wait and see if there is indeed a chance to reach that objective by letting Secretary of State John Kerry do his thing.
Most Americans are tired of sending troops to die in the Middle East, especially when they look at what is now happening in Iraq, where the sacrifices of Marines in Anbar province and particularly in Fallujah appear to have been in vain after the present spreading of fierce belligerence by anti government forces.
Finally, one should take into account that Americans could pay another price at the pump, as the tougher sanctions contemplated by the same senators would cut Iran's all important oil export to zero, thus ensuring that the price of oil would go up.
Ironically, the price of oil is now dropping because Libya and Iran are exporting more. As a matter of logic, it is hard indeed to accept the reasoning of the 59 senators that their bill for the toughening of sanctions will increase the likelihood of a successful negotiation by building further economic pressure on Iran. A final showdown on the bill will come soon.
For the sake of peace, one should hope that the negotiators reach agreement with Iran on the implementation of the Nov. 24 interim accord. Now, it is truly a race against time.
Marino de Medici is a Winchester resident and formerly the dean of foreign correspondents in the United States.