The members of Maine’s congressional delegation have, for the most part, staked out their positions on a multination deal the United States and other nations negotiated with Iran to limit the country’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for international sanctions relief.
Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree have announced their support; Rep. Bruce Poliquin is opposed. Sen. Susan Collins is the only member of Maine’s congressional delegation who hasn’t announced her position on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. She also is the only Republican in the Senate who hasn’t indicated which way she’ll vote (her office declined an interview request; Collins plans to announce her position after the Senate returns to Washington after Labor Day). In other words, she’s the only GOP senator who hasn’t said she’s opposed.
A headline in The Hill newspaper last week called Collins “Obama’s last hope for GOP support on Iran.” Collins’ vote might not determine the deal’s fate in either direction — President Barack Obama likely has enough support to veto a vote of disapproval and have his veto sustained — but the Maine senator has the chance to send a powerful message when everybody’s listening.
That message should be that the deal negotiated with Iran, while not perfect, is the most responsible course of action available both in terms of containing the nuclear capabilities of a state sponsor of terrorism and preserving the United States’ position of leadership in the world.
The terms of the nuclear deal — to which the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union are signatories along with Iran — essentially cut off Iran’s pathway to a nuclear weapon using plutonium for at least the next 15 years. Iran would have to pour concrete into its Arak heavy-water research reactor, its primary means for producing weapons-grade plutonium. It would have to agree to a new, downgraded design for the facility that’s satisfactory to the P5+1 nations. Iran wouldn’t be able to build another heavy-water research reactor nor a reprocessing facility for the nuclear agreement’s 15-year duration. In 15 years, it could take Iran up to two-and-a-half years to rebuild this capacity, according to the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The agreement’s terms on uranium are less stringent — Iran could retain key infrastructure for uranium enrichment — but they still involve Iran eliminating 98 percent of its current stockpile of enriched uranium and dismantling two-thirds of its installed centrifuges. For the next 15 years, Iran would be able to enrich uranium at only one facility that will be under constant surveillance and monitoring.
The International Atomic Energy Agency will, under the terms of the deal, subject Iran’s declared nuclear facilities to 24/7 surveillance. In certain cases, the IAEA can gain access to undeclared but suspicious facilities in less than two hours. In most circumstances, the IAEA can gain access with 24 hours’ notice. If Iran disputes the IAEA’s access, it could take up to 24 days. But a group of 29 highly regarded U.S nuclear scientists called that level of inspector access to suspicious facilities “unprecedented” in an early August letter of support for the nuclear deal and wrote that the terms would allow for “effective challenge inspection for the suspected activities of greatest concern.”
Key opponents of the Iran deal have compared the terms negotiated with the terms of an ideal agreement, which is an unreasonable expectation in any diplomatic dealing. The question opponents have not satisfactorily answered is, what’s the alternative to signing onto the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? It’s certainly not a viable, nor a desirable one.
Should the U.S. abandon an agreement it largely negotiated, the deal will fall apart. But so would the key leverage the U.S. and its allies applied to negotiate a deal: the international sanctions regime to which Iran has been subjected for the last decade. China and Russia are signatories to the nuclear deal, but they appear likely to lift sanctions on Iran whether the deal materializes or it doesn’t. Other economically powerful nations would likely follow suit.
So, those who hope the U.S. could hold out for more favorable terms are hoping unrealistically that the U.S. could return to the negotiating table and extract more favorable conditions while negotiating from a substantially weakened position.
The U.S. also risks significant embarrassment on the international stage if it abandons the deal. Iran could claim that it tried diplomacy while the U.S. walked away. Russian President Vladimir Putin could seize on the weakened position of a U.S. president undermined by his Congress. What could that mean for future negotiations in which the U.S. takes part? Could those on the other side of the table even have faith that a future president won’t be undermined by political opponents back home?
With enough opposition in Congress, the U.S. could abandon the deal. However, that would mean choosing a course of action that allows Iran to continue developing its nuclear capabilities essentially unchecked — certainly not Israel’s desire — while simultaneously enjoying sanctions relief from much of the world.
The alternative, signing the agreement, is much more responsible.