From their frequent invocation of the Bible on the campaign trail, we can only assume that American politicians are well acquainted with the Gospel of Matthew:
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Alas, the Obama Administration’s most recent attempt at peacemaking – namely, a negotiated nuclear deal with Iran – has hardly won them that sort of adulation. It will be years before we have an honest accounting of the deal, but that hasn’t stopped opponents of the agreement from lining up against it.
Enthusiastic supporters, on the other hand, have made similarly premature assertions. President Obama has plainly declared that the deal “solve[s] a massive national security problem” and “prevent[s] Iran from getting nuclear weapons.”
That’s pretty categorical, and a tad too hopeful as well – the likeliest longterm outcome for the deal is that it will fail. The hopeful scenario is that it will help us muddle through the next ten years, at which point the saga of Iran-US relations will take another turn.
Even so, the Administration seems to have corralled enough support from Democratic lawmakers to keep the deal alive: the Congress’s review window will expire today without a vote scuppering the agreement. It’s as good a time as any to make a few observations.
American Leadership – The debate over whether or not this agreement is good for American interests will persist, perhaps indefinitely. What should be clear, though, is that if the deal had failed to make it through the Congress after the President signed off on it – and after it had gained the support of Iran, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, China, and Russia – then the United States’ ability to lead on international negotiations would have suffered tremendous and perhaps irreparable damage.
The United States remains the world’s most powerful and influential country, but that power is evermore constrained. Making the most of it in the future will depend as much on diplomatic competence as it will on our overwhelming strategic advantages. To have a President make an agreement with wide international support, only to then have that agreement rescinded, is to raise serious questions about whether the United States can be a reliable party to negotiations.
Ultimately, the responsibility to see that international agreements do not fall apart over domestic politics falls equally on the President and Congress. The President should no more pursue a deal he can’t get the Congress to sign off on than the Congress should try to block a deal for political advantage.
But now that the deal is in place, opponents should be careful: if this deal falls apart, it’s important that the United States not be seen as having acted in bad faith. There are other ways to corner Iran, if that is what hawks want, than to repudiate this agreement on day one of a new administration.
Israel – Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) seem to have done themselves serious damage during this process. From a practical standpoint, they picked a fight and they lost. In Washington, there’s a lot of influence that comes with the impression that when you make something a priority, people had better get on your side. (Just ask the NRA.) The sense that AIPAC carries that kind of influence is beginning to erode.
Even more damaging is the feeling that issues around Israel are becoming politicized. In opposing the Obama Administration, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has cozied up to Republicans in a way that raises eyebrows. In 2012, he all but endorsed Mitt Romney for President. Earlier this year, he accepted a controversial invitation by House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress. He used the platform as an opportunity to critique the President.
All in all, the strength of the relationship between the United States and Israel is increasingly feeling like it might depend on which party wields power in each country. It is hard to imagine how that is in Israel’s longterm interest.
A Better Deal – The Obama Administration has forcefully, if somewhat disingenuously, maintained that the alternative to this deal is war. Opponents have instead offered the vague, if reassuring, possibility of ‘a better deal.’
Two quick points.
First, the final agreement noticeably did not include a provision allowing for ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections. Opponents of the deal have seized on that; they’ve painted a picture of Iranians scurrying back and forth, hiding nuclear material one step ahead of international inspectors.
But that danger is a product of overactive imaginations. The possible delay of an inspection is on the order of 24 days, possibly long enough for Iranians to move material, but nowhere near long enough for Iranians to remove the detectable radioactive signatures of nuclear material.
In other words, ‘anytime, anywhere’ is an important rhetorical milestone, but not a significant technological barrier.
Second, everyone listening to the critics of this deal should keep one illuminating detail in mind: they had a better deal. And they didn’t like it.
Remember Iraq? The country without a WMD program, which was subject to a harsh sanctions regime, and where international observers enjoyed ‘anytime, anywhere’ inspections? What did today’s critics of the Iran deal do when an even more robust program failed to find evidence of WMDs in Iraq? They advocated for and ultimately got a ground war in the Middle East, a war that has cost the United States trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.
Perhaps this Iran deal is a dud. Perhaps someone else could have negotiated a better one. But don’t believe for a second that the hawks would be happy with ‘a better deal.’
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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