Why is Sen. Mark Kirk so intent on derailing nuclear negotiations with Iran?
The Republican right has again vaulted its favorite bogeyman, the Islamic Republic of Iran, into the limelight. As co-author of Senate Bill 269, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015, Kirk, of Illinois, is helping lead this foolhardy effort. Kirk’s bill, which would impose “new crippling sanctions” on Iran, was introduced in January just as negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program reached a critical stage. Anti-negotiations rhetoric reached a fever pitch last week when 47 Republican senators, including Kirk, decided they would make foreign policy on their own. They signed a letter to Iranian leaders threatening to stymie any agreement. American citizens responded immediately, and the hashtag #47traitors is still trending.
Ten days earlier, the Israeli prime minister addressed a joint session of Congress on the subject of Iran. He had been invited by Republican leaders who took the unprecedented action of inviting a sitting leader of a foreign state to Washington without asking for, or getting approval from, the president, the steward of day-to-day foreign affairs under this country’s system of government.
Kirk was again out in front praising a foreign leader for his efforts to obstruct sensitive negotiations. The talks with Iran had gotten nowhere for 20 years until the Obama administration, along with other members of the U.N. Security Council (and Germany), successfully brought Iran to the table and engineered the relaxing of economic sanctions while limiting Iran’s ability to enrich nuclear energy and to increase the number of centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium.
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According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has kept to its side of the bargain over that last two years of negotiations. A final agreement is expected later this spring.
All the governments in the region — save for Israel — support the administration’s approach. Even Iran’s arch rival Saudi Arabia is on board. By all accounts, Iran has no ability to create nuclear weapons. Iran, like all the other countries of the Middle East region — except, again, Israel — is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel is one of five countries in the world that has not signed or has withdrawn from the treaty.
There is not much good news coming out of this tortured region of the world. Syria has been partitioned into battling enclaves and hundreds of thousands of its people have sought refuge in neighboring states like Lebanon and Jordan, which can barely accommodate their own people. Much of northern Iraq is under the thumb of the bloody and destructive Islamic State. Libya is unraveling. The authoritarian regime in Egypt has turned back all the gains of the Arab Spring. The list goes on.
The potential of an agreement with Iran may be the one beam of light in an otherwise nightmarish political and military landscape. In 2013, moderates under the leadership of President Hassan Rouhani replaced the rightist regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which had effectively alienated Iran from the rest of the world over the eight years of his tenure.
Kirk and his allies have effectively joined forces with reactionary elements within Iran, which are just as hell-bent on scuttling the work of Rouhani as Republicans are on undercutting President Obama. At first, I thought this was ironic but, given that both American and Iranian reactionaries are more committed to military posturing than diplomacy, perhaps they are not such strange bedfellows.
What could drive Kirk and his ilk to so wantonly undercut a rare and hard-fought diplomatic and political, rather than military, solution to such a longstanding dispute in an area so rife with disputes? Is it devotion to unqualified American military hegemony in the region and the world at large? Is it devotion to military solutions? (Kirk’s international experience is devoid of anything but military service). Is it devotion to Israel, the only country adamant about scuttling such a deal? Is it Islamophobia, the idea that Muslims and Muslim states can’t be trusted? Is it hatred of Obama? The answer is probably a combination of all of these.
In any case, the fact is that actions like those of the junior senator from Illinois and his hawkish cohorts will only serve to further alienate the U.S. from a critical region of the world where American leaders are prone to making recourse to aggression rather than agreement and warcraft rather than statecraft.
Steve Tamari is associate professor of Middle East and Islamic History at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.