Ron Johnson Gets It Wrong on Iran (Again)

Benjy Cannon
on January 25, 2016

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Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Senator defending his seat in 2016, posted a bizarre defense of his relentless opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement last week. Johnson was responding to his opponent Russ Feingold’s support for the deal, which, Feingold correctly stated, “helped [the United States] avoid a war with Iran by having a nuclear deal.” Johnson replied by claiming that the deal “just makes no sense whatsoever.” Johnson’s characterization of the Iran deal doesn’t hold up to a shred of scrutiny, but “just makes no sense” is a pretty good summation of his argument.

Johnson Spokesperson: “Senator Feingold is saying the deal ‘hopefully will work’ even as the Iranians show they’ll do whatever they want.”

This one is baffling. Under the terms of the agreement, the IAEA recently certified that Iran has: shipped 97% of highly enriched uranium out of the country, dismantled 2/3rds of its centrifuges and removed and poured concrete into the core of its heavy water reactor at Arak. Iran has submitted to the most intrusive monitoring and inspection regime in modern history (short of military occupation). Unless these steps fall under that category of “ things Iran wants to do,” Johnson is mistaken.

Johnson: “They detained and humiliated American sailors.”

He has this one all backwards. The sailors in question accidentally drifted into Iranian waters, which in the past, could have caused a major international incident. But because of the channels established as part of the deal, the Americans were quickly and safely returned. Johnson cites the “humiliation” the United States experienced as a result of Iran releasing its video of the soldiers’ imprisonment. Using videos of the sailors as Iranian propaganda was inexcusable, but that’s a distraction from the real story here — that they were returned safely and without incident. Peacefully resolving a potential crisis is not humiliation or weakness — it’s a sign of strength, and a great example of what diplomacy can accomplish.

Johnson: “There are no guarantees… that a nation that has declared “death to America” will abide by the terms of the agreement, despite more oversight granted to international inspectors.”

Johnson conveniently ignores the fact that the IAEA has already verified that Iran does not have the nuclear material necessary to produce a single nuclear weapon. In Johnson’s initial statement opposing the deal, he argued that the deal would actually enable an Iranian nuclear weapon. That argument doesn’t appear in his latest post. Why? The IAEA certification is not something Johnson could plausibly dispute. So why mention it at all? The steps Iran has already taken under the JCPOA undermine his opposition to the agreement.

Johnson: “So just very simply, why in the world would you want to enter into an agreement that would inject tens and now hundreds of billions into an economy and military of your self-proclaimed enemy and the largest state-sponsor of terror?

Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism is dangerous, destructive, and counter to US foreign policy. Johnson is right that sanctions relief will give Iran access to roughly $56 Billion in its own assets, and, according to Secretary Kerry, there’s no guarantee that Iran won’t put some of those resources towards funding terror. The United States sanctions (and should continue to sanction) Iranian sponsorship of terror and ballistic missile testing.

But non-nuclear Iranian bad actions are poor reasons to oppose the JCPOA. Given Iran’s awful behavior the only thing that that could possibly it more dangerous is a nuclear weapon. Thankfully, this deal cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to developing a nuclear weapon.

Finally, it’s worth asking what Johnson thinks would have happened in the absence of a deal (he doesn’t offer an alternative in his post). Would the US have been able to secure the sailors by declaring war on Iran? Could we have dismantled their nuclear program with bombs? The Pentagon certainly doesn’t think so. Neither does Graham Allison, the Director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Allison wrote that in the absence of a deal, the international sanctions regime against Iran would have collapsed, Iran would have proceeded full steam ahead with its nuclear weapons program and the world would be on the brink of another costly war in the Middle East. Trading the deal and its enormous benefits for the bleak scenario Allison laid out doesn’t make any sense. Sadly, it’s exactly what Ron Johnson wants.