Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has introduced legislation that sets the United States on the road to war with Iran and the road to an internal war within the Democratic Party.
The bill (S.1881), which has many Democratic co-sponsors, increases the chances for war in two major ways. First, it undercuts ongoing negotiations to build on the first-step nuclear agreement with Iran by adding additional sanctions before the current six month negotiating period plays out. Iran has threatened to withdraw from these negotiations if a bad faith act, such as adding new sanctions, transpires. The U.S. would do the same if, for example, Iran's parliament passed legislation to open a new nuclear production facility.
If the first-step deal collapses, there will be no problem in quickly instituting new sanctions. And there will certainly be calls for military action, no matter how short-term the results would be. But if the collapse is triggered by a U.S. unilateral action, the coalition now enforcing those sanctions could well collapse. This undermining of the president's negotiating authority and international cooperation is as unprecedented as it is dangerous.
The second danger in this bill is that it encourages an Israeli attack on Iran. The bill states that
"... if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide ..., diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence...."
While the language is "should," not "must," and there are bows to the Constitution and congressional authority, this is a clear signal to Israel that it can count on U.S. support for a "unilateral" air strike. And Iran cannot be blamed if it takes it that way. No one should doubt who will determine if the Iranian program provides an existential threat to Israel. The Israeli government's position is that any enrichment in Iran is such a threat. Yet reaching any agreement with Iran will undoubtedly require some residual domestic enrichment capability.
Military experts agree that Israel would need substantial U.S. help for any effective attack. This would include not only intelligence and aerial refueling, but also combat search and rescue for downed Israeli pilots, possible suppression of enemy air defenses and other direct combat missions. In short, war.
This language, while not requiring that the U.S. support an Israeli attack, certainly will be taken that way in Israel and Iran. Also, it just might be enough to doom a diplomatic settlement and unleash the dogs of war.
The president has rightly threatened to veto any such bill that reaches his desk. And that is where the war internal to the Democratic Party begins. Already the chairmen of every other major Senate Committee have cosigned a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) imploring him not to let the Menendez bill slip through by unanimous consent or other parliamentary maneuver. Do the supporting senators want to face a vote to override a presidential veto in the middle of an election year, splitting the party and perhaps weakening the president? That seems like a formula for handing control of the Senate to the GOP.
Senator Menendez and his colleagues should rethink this very bad idea and come back from their holiday break with this bomb defused.
Lt. General (USA Ret.) Robert Gard, the chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, contributed to this piece.