Iran and the Third Rail of American Politics

by James A. Russell

A distinctive feature of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the P-5+1 and Iran to limit Iran’s nuclear program is that the fate of the plan in Congress rests not on the details of actual arms control agreement but on the dreaded third rail of America’s dysfunctional domestic politics.

America’s “third rail” of domestic politics once consisted of a relatively small number of hot button issues (Social Security, for example) that politicians simply could not touch for fear of retribution by the voters.

Over the last 20 years, however, that “rail” has expanded into a veritable superhighway as the number of policy issues now off limits for potential solutions has grown exponentially. The result has been gridlock and paralysis at home and foreign policy failures abroad.

Why can’t the United States simply declare victory with the Iran agreement and move on? After an era of one foreign policy blunder after another, why can’t all political actors in Washington embrace success for a change? The answer lies with the dysfunctional third rail superhighway.

Arms control negotiators from the United States, Europe, Russia, China, and Iran have agreed on unprecedented steps to bring Iran’s nuclear program back under the auspices of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The agreed-upon framework is a remarkable achievement by any measure. In fact, it has never been done before.

Equally remarkable is that the United States and one of its bitterest adversaries of the last quarter century painstakingly worked through the details of the agreement piece by piece over many months of difficult and contentious negotiations. Dean Acheson, the secretary of state who navigated the perilous thickets and delicate negotiations that led to the reintegration of Germany into the Cold War security system after World War II, would have been proud.

As noted by commentators such as Stephen Walt and others, the strategic benefits of the Iran agreement are obvious. It reinforces the NPT regime as an instrument of international peace and security. It reduces the likelihood of a destabilizing and new regional arms race. It diminishes the prospects of another regional war involving the United States. And perhaps most significantly, the agreement opens the door to the reintegration of Iran into the international community in a way that will inevitably change Iran’s behavior for the better.

But as noted at the outset, the political debate in the US will not likely center on the obvious strategic benefits of the agreement. Instead, the fate of the agreement will be determined by America’s dysfunctional third rail of domestic politics. Interest group donors and lobbyists on both sides of the aisle are making a desperate attempt to rescue defeat from the jaws of victory. The dysfunctional third rail of American politics, which prevents the United States from simply embracing this foreign policy success, is itself a symptom of a broader malaise.

Influence of Powerful Interests

A number of disturbing features of America’s domestic politics have made the dysfunctional third rail into the norm of today. The first and most important of these is the Republican Party’s rejection of the idea of using government to achieve anything constructive to serve the public good. Whether it’s fixing the nation’s roads and bridges, raising the minimum wage, overhauling the outdated immigration system, addressing climate change as a national priority, placing sensible limits on access to guns, appointing ambassadors, or approving judges, the Republicans are opposed to pretty much everything.

President Obama could stride into the White House press briefing room on any given morning and declare that the sun rises in the east and congressional Republicans would be denouncing him for his statements that afternoon. The driving principles of the Republican Party today are to reflexively oppose President Obama, starve the federal government of revenue, and aid the wealthiest few in whatever way they can. Republicans now reflexively denounce any attempts at sensible compromise on virtually every issue of the day. The Iran deal falls prey to the same logic.

If, as seems certain, President Obama vetoes a resolution of disapproval of the agreement and then scrapes together enough votes to uphold his veto, the United States and the presidency will emerge in a weakened condition at home and around the world.

The second feature of the dysfunctional third rail is the descent of the political system into something that serves the interests of those willing to pay for favors. For example, press reports indicate that a handful of wealthy families are almost solely responsible for funding this year’s collection of Republican presidential candidates.

Congress today is awash in interest group and corporate money, and its members increasingly service these powerful interests. Today’s system of government by and large serves the richest Americans, leaving the rest of us behind as the nation’s roads and bridges deteriorate, workers’ wages stagnate, and the rich get even richer. A regrettable but entrenched truism of America’s great democracy is: money talks.

A third feature of the dysfunctional third rail is a fundamental disinterest in making policy decisions based on empirical evidence. This tendency is powerfully apparent in the congressional refusal to draw any useful lessons from the last 15 years of international politics.

During this period, the United States sent its armies abroad to fight the so-called global war on terror after the 9/11 attacks. In parallel, it embarked on an unprecedented global campaign of extra-legal assassination by robots against both real and imagined enemies. Fifteen years later, our armies have returned home in defeat having unsurprisingly failed to re-engineer Iraq and Afghanistan’s societies.  It’s not clear what we’ve achieved in blasting away with our robots other than to increase body counts and generate ill will towards the United States in countries like Pakistan where people were on the receiving end of our “precision” strikes.

Instead of taking heed of the experiences of our ill-conceived and failed wars, Congress continues to embrace the prospects of more wars to police the international system while simultaneously cutting the money for those wars via sequestration.

The fourth toxic ingredient is the US-Israeli relationship that is awash in cash that flows in multiple directions. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC are directly intervening in US domestic politics in opposition to an administration that provides Israel with billions of dollars in aid every year as well as political cover for its seizure of Palestinian land in the occupied territories. This intervention into American politics creates the ugly specter of dual loyalty whereby America’s elected representatives are asked to choose the interests of another country over those of the United States.

Broader Problem

The dysfunctional third rail superhighway is of course symptomatic of a broader malaise that has sapped American power and made us look pretty foolish before the international community in the debate over the Iran deal. The unvarnished truth is that America’s democracy has been brought to a virtual halt by the alliance of right-wing ideologues and interest group money because the people allowed it to happen.

Of course the dysfunctional third rail says more about us as a society than about the people and institutions that have created it. The public stood by and watched as the Republicans gerrymandered congressional districts to guarantee a permanent majority in the House of Representatives. They watched Republicans systematically erode the voting rights of citizens in red state America. And, they have acquiesced to the flood of corporate and interest group money into the political system.

How can we claim the mantle of world leadership when we cannot rule sensibly at home? This dysfunction comes at a time when, as always, the world could use US global leadership to help marshal international action to deal with the pressing problems of climate change, environmental destruction, refugee flows, militant Islamic extremism, and the open flouting of the UN charter by Russia.

America can’t lead effectively abroad until it rebuilds consensus at home, which is not likely unless the electorate addresses the sources of dysfunction and sweeps the current crop of ideologues from office. Let’s hope that the Iran deal manages to squeak through, though it’s hard to be optimistic about the long-term future so long as the third rail continues to render our domestic politics dysfunctional.

Photo by Richard Masoner via Flickr

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. Excellent, sane article. Palestine Is Still The Issue. Break the “entangling alliance” that allows Zionist Israel and its omnipresent ZioLobby (AIPAC et al) to be the single-most disruptive element to an America that just might get back on track were they (ZioIsrael, AIPAC, Adelson…) brought to heel and forced back into their lairs–better yet, erasing Zionism from the pages of time.

  2. Aipac’s toxic intervention in American politics has produced catastrophe in the Middle East.

  3. Very good article! We’ve been in euphoria of post Soviet Union for about a full generation now with no end in sight! Our unipolar position hasn’t been utilized wisely over the past 2 decades! The unwise support of the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, creation of the Al Qaida, disastrous 9/11 incident, our passive reaction to the disastrous situation in Bosnia and our eventual wake up call in light of the genocide, iligal and false war in Iraq and Afghanistan and now potentially with Iran are all due to the false euphoria which in our politicians and neocons are still stuck in that MO! Until we as the people of this country wake up and raise our voices and compel our politicians to get their heads out of their own asses dealing with the domestic policies which may unify us again! And the change perhaps would give us a chance to review and reform our foreign policy as well otherwise this saga will go on for the time being! It is in our DNA to not react to situations around us until the choking point is here or realized!

  4. @ Monty Ahwazi: “dealing with the domestic policies which may unify us again! ”

    What would those ‘domestic policies’ be that have the ability to “unify us;” and to what precedent does “again” refer?

    The American people are a lot like the people of Israel as Avigail Abarbanel describes them: they come together only when they are at war; when they have designated some Other as a common enemy; when they are collectively committed to killing Other people’s children.

    Perhaps a social scientist can tease out whether this phenomenon that seems to characterize both Jewish Israelis and Americans is something Americans “picked up” from its “special relationship” to Israel and, earlier, Britain; or whether it’s an inherent and/or systemic flaw in the US body politic.

  5. The deal is a great success – for the Iranians. They get to investigate themselves? Idiocy is what many Americans call that part of the deal.

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