Obscure law could make Iran debate moot

On the heels of recent House and Senate hearings evaluating the viability of an Iranian nuclear deal, and the clock ticking as negotiators hope to cement an agreement, lawmakers say that Iran's readiness to verify compliance is the lynchpin in reaching a long-term diplomatic solution. So why is the U.S. gambling with its participation in the world’s nuclear watchdog, the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)?

A couple of outdated U.S. laws could make the current debate essentially moot by greatly weakening the world’s leading nuclear regulatory authority. That is, though U.S. funds over a quarter of the IAEA’s annual budget, an unrelated policy could force us to withdraw our investment immediately.

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The reason dates back to the 1990s when Congress passed legislation forbidding funding to any UN agency that admits the Palestinians as a full member. While the law was meant to limit the Palestinians’ voice in global affairs, it has instead created a scenario in which the Palestinians could gain a seat on the global stage, and the U.S. would lose its voice, its vote, and its influence. Today, that scenario is dangerously close to becoming reality.

This April, the Palestinian Central Council adopted a plan to seek membership in 63 United Nations agencies and international conventions, with specific timing up to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. If these bids are successful, U.S. engagement with and participation in the UN—including agencies like the IAEA—could be undermined with unprecedented magnitude.

We have too much on the line to allow the U.S. to pick up its chips and walk away now. The IAEA is counting on the U.S. to fund over a quarter of its annual budget. The sum—$200 million—may not be a lot in the grand scheme of the U.S. budget, but it could make or break the success of a small entity charged with a monumental task.  Indeed, the IAEA is already at the center of the Iran nuclear negotiations, called upon to perform the verification and inspection steps outlined in the existing six month interim agreement. 

As Secretary of State John Kerry has said, "verification is the key,” and on that, Republicans agree. In the run-up to last week’s hearings, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said, “Given Iran’s long record of deception, any nuclear agreement in which we cannot completely verify compliance would be an open invitation for Tehran to continue its secret nuclear weapons program, forcing the world to live with the permanent threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Congress and the executive branch must work together to prevent the U.S. from being forced out of the IAEA and any other part of the UN system over the Palestinian membership issue. Otherwise, the U.S. risks not only our global influence, but our capacity to respond to crises — be it in Iran, North Korea, or any number of places the UN intervenes on our behalf.

It has happened before. Three years ago, a vote to admit the Palestinians to the UN’s science and culture agency, UNESCO, triggered an immediate cut-off of funding from the U.S., with devastating implications for many of the organization’s core programs. As a result, our priorities and current programs on Holocaust education and advancing press freedom have been curtailed, while other countries­—which do not share our values—have been able to expand their influence.  In November 2013, after two consecutive years of not paying our regular dues to UNESCO, the U.S. lost its vote.

These prohibitions on UN membership are airtight under current U.S. law. They provide no authority for the Administration to waive the cut-off requirements, no matter how it negatively impacts U.S. national security or vital economic interests. Simply put, it’s bad policy, and it allows the Palestinians to effectively control U.S. participation in multilateral institutions — an embarrassing and counterproductive position for the world’s most powerful nation.

Congress and the executive branch have a short runway to pass new legislation allowing the administration to continue funding UN bodies either via a national security waiver or by repealing these laws from the 90s. Let’s not wait for the alarms—nuclear or otherwise—to sound before we act.

Yeo is executive director of the Better World Campaign.