by Paul R. Pillar
It has not been a smooth month for those who want to keep Iran in pariahdom forever and thus seek to kill any international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The sanctions bill that is the deal-killers’ principal vehicle at the moment and is in the Senate banking committee has not been attracting the hoped-for Democratic co-sponsors. The strong position taken on the issue by President Obama obviously is a major reason for this. And however unlikely this may seem with almost anything that happens these days in Congress, reason and good sense have probably had some effect—among those who realize that the bill adds no negotiating value whatever in threatening additional sanctions on an Iran that already knows full well such sanctions would follow any breakdown of negotiations. With the exception of Robert Menendez (who has alienated himself from the president by wanting not only Iran but also Cuba to be in pariahdom forever), the deal-killing campaign has increasingly taken on an all-Republican flavor. That makes all the more obvious how, in addition to the other motivations behind the campaign, it has become a partisan endeavor to deny Mr. Obama a foreign policy achievement.
There also has been the widespread and thoroughly justified criticism of Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on the subject—criticism that has been wider than Boehner probably expected. The inappropriateness of this invitation was apparent even to many people who may not fully appreciate how much Netanyahu has been trying to undermine U.S. foreign policy, and how he is much more of an adversary of the United States than an ally on this issue. His unwavering opposition to any agreement with Tehran, even an agreement that moves Iran farther away from having a nuclear weapon, is motivated by objectives the United States does not share and in some respects—such as the objective of limiting U.S. freedom of action regarding whom it cooperates with on Middle Eastern issues—is directly opposed to U.S. interests.
Many people also recognized the narrowness and cheapness of what Boehner did. He ignored the usual procedure, as former speaker Nancy Pelosi described it, of consulting with Congressional leaders of both parties before offering someone the high honor and exceptional privilege of addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress. People recognize that it debases the currency of this privilege to extend it a third time to Netanyahu when the only person so far to have addressed Congress three times is Winston Churchill. (We Americans knew Winston Churchill well. Winston Churchill was a friend. Bibi, you’re no Winston Churchill.)
People also recognize that it is an indignity for the People’s House if a foreign leader is to use it as a prop to berate the host country’s policies as well as to try to score points with his voters in his own country in an election just a couple of weeks after he is scheduled to speak. He would be using Congress as a prop just as he used as a prop a cartoon drawing of a bomb—which he doesn’t use anymore because the preliminary agreement that Netanyahu has always denounced drained his cartoon bomb by ending Iran’s medium-level enrichment of uranium.
Zbigniew Brzezinski summarized well the nature of Boehner’s move: “Speaker Boehner has an odd definition of leadership: inviting a foreign leader to undermine our President’s policy in front of Congress?”
The opponents of an agreement may be increasingly aware that their fiction about supposedly just wanting to strengthen the U.S. negotiating position is wearing thin. There have been compromises of this cover story that have become difficult to hide, such as the direct, willing, and repeated admission of the freshman senator from Arkansas that the purpose of new sanctions legislation would be to kill the negotiations, not to aid them.
Further wearing away of the fiction has come from Israel, where the director of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, told visiting U.S. officials that new sanctions legislation would serve as a grenade that would blow up the negotiations. Pardo later tried to spin the story backward by saying that yes, the negotiations would blow up but what he meant was that this would be a good thing because negotiations could reconvene later under more favorable circumstances. That was a nice try by the Mossad chief to minimize the apparent rift with his prime minister—and a politically prudent try, given how already well known it has been that heads and former heads of Israel’s security services disagree with Netanyahu’s declared positions on Iran—but there won’t be any more favorable circumstances. The current political circumstances in Iran are as good as they’re going to get for this sort of deal for the foreseeable future, and if the current negotiations are blown apart by a legislative act of bad faith they will not come back together for a long time.
Against the backdrop of these setbacks to the anti-agreement campaign, the campaigners have recently been relying more on a strategy that isn’t really new but has a new twist. That strategy involves going beyond the nuclear question and repeatedly voicing alarm about other aspects of Iranian policy and behavior. The strategy tacitly recognizes that the campaigners do not have logic and reason on their side regarding the objective of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, because an agreement of the sort that is being negotiated clearly would be much better at achieving that objective than the alternative, which would be the absence of an agreement and the loss of all the special restrictions on, and monitoring of, the Iranian program that already have been won through negotiations.
The strategy of reminding people of everything Iran does that we don’t like, or that the campaigners tell us we’re not supposed to like, operates on two levels. To some extent the anti-agreement forces try to make an argument that letting Iran out of its international penalty box will enable an ill-intentioned state to do even more ill-intentioned things. But to a large extent the appeal is simply an emotional, non-intellectual one that relies on popular distaste for not doing business with people we don’t like. It is the sort of appeal that tacitly rejects the principle that the need for diplomacy and doing business with other states is at least as great with one’s adversaries as it is with one’s allies.
The newest twist is to recite some of the most recent turmoil in the region, such as the governmental collapse in Yemen, to interpret that turmoil as the consequence of Iran’s evil doings, and to suggest that regional messiness is all of a piece with the nuclear question. Thus Charles Krauthammer, in his column on Friday under the headline “Iran’s emerging empire” sounds an alarm about how “Iran’s march toward a nuclear bomb” has combined with “Iran’s march toward conventional domination of the Arab world” to make for an Iranian-created threatening mess in the Middle East. Yemen, Syria, Iraq, along with terrified Gulf Arab states—the whole set of conflicts is all, according to Krauthammer, one big Iranian campaign to establish an empire throughout the region. And then in the last part of the piece he says that he does not like those nuclear negotiations at all, and that given all that Iranian empire-building we should not like the negotiations either.
Published on the same day as Krauthammer’s column, a piece by Dennis Ross, Eric Edelman, and Ray Takeyh centers on the same notion that “Iran is on the march in the Middle East.” (Evidently the current talking points from the anti-agreement war room recommend generous use of the term march.) Ross et al. say that “the American alliance system stands bruised and battered” while “our friends” in the region see the Iranian advance as even more rapid than a march: they “perceive Iran and its resistance-front galloping across the region.” The piece maintains the fiction about supposedly wanting an agreement, while recommending aggressive measures that, like new sanctions legislation, would be designed to derail the negotiations and prevent an agreement. The measures include a “revamped coercive strategy” that is vague but seems to consist of intentionally butting heads with the Iranians in any civil war we can find, as well as a “political warfare campaign” against Tehran and, in the most direct sort of negotiation-derailer, willingness of U.S. diplomats “to walk away from the table and even suspend the talks.”
One of the problems in these two pieces is that what is depicted as a grand Iranian scheme for achieving regional hegemony is instead a matter of diverse conflicts with many different causes and instigators and in which any Iranian roles have been largely reactive. Krauthammer draws our attention, for example, to the presence of Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian officer who were near the armistice line in the Golan Heights and were killed the other day by an Israeli airstrike, and mentions dark possibilities about Iran wanting to open a new front against Israel. In fact, the target of Hezbollah and its Iranian ally in that area was much more likely the Al Qaeda-asssociated Al Nusra Front, which had expanded its operations in that area within the past few months. The most noteworthy thing about the incident was the Israeli airstrike itself, which appeared aimed at eliciting a Hezbollah response and benefiting Netanyahu’s party in the coming election, although Hezbollah did not take the bait.
Even if one assumes the worst about Iranian intentions, a more fundamental deficiency of these two articles and similar anti-Iranian broadsides is that they lose all sight of the key question in evaluating the current nuclear negotiations and any final agreement that emerges from them: will Iranian policies and behavior be better for our interests with such an agreement or without it? (Of course, insofar as such broadsides are an emotions-based appeal for us not to want to have anything to do with Iranians, losing sight of this question is the whole idea.) The policy question involved is not to be equated with a popularity contest in which Iran is a contestant. There will be plenty of things for us to dislike about Iranian policies, both foreign and domestic, with or without a nuclear agreement. An agreement will very much make a difference with regard to one set of Iranian policies important to us; it will help to keep the Iranian nuclear program peaceful. Any follow-on effects on other matters require further analysis. Krauthammer and Ross et al. don’t address this at all and give us no reason to believe that any of the Iranian behaviors they consider so nasty would be any better without an agreement than with one. Making Iran a permanent pariah does nothing to improve those behaviors, and instead is more likely, out of an absence of alternative channels for Iran to pursue its interests, to make them even worse. By contrast, the opening of greater communication and patterns of cooperation that a nuclear agreement would encourage presents better opportunities for getting Iran to act constructively on some of the very conflicts and problems that these two pieces highlight.
That leads to another fundamental deficiency of the broadsides, which is that they make no effort to sort out what is good, bad, or neutral for U.S. interests in what the Iranians do. Instead there is just the blanket—and because of that, erroneous—assumption that any Iranian action, participation, or influence on anything anywhere in the region is ipso facto bad. This approach is remarkable in light of how much U.S. and Iranian interests run parallel on some of the most salient conflicts involved. This is most obvious with regard to ISIS and efforts to check its expansion. Ross et al. try to disguise this fact with a reference regarding Iraq to what “appears to be Iran’s invasion of the country under the banner of disarming the Islamic State.” So what exactly are the alternative scenarios in Iraq they have in mind, which of those are better for U.S. interests and why, and what is the Iranian role in each? They don’t say. If Iranians are doing heavy lifting on the ground in killing ISIS fighters, and in the process getting their own people killed and sustaining other costs in the process, rather than that happening to us, why should that make us unhappy?
Krauthammer does something similar regarding Yemen, where he laments how the current turmoil there is interfering with U.S. drone operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And the cause of the turmoil, he says, is the advance by the rebel Houthis, who are “agents” of Iran (they aren’t, although they probably do get some Iranian aid). In fact, the Houthis hate AQAP. They fight against AQAP. And again, if such people fight and die while acting against this Al Qaeda affiliate, why should we be unhappy about that? If that kind of action on the ground means fewer U.S. drone strikes, and thus less of the accompanying grief the United States gets from such strikes because of the symbolism and the collateral damage involved, that is a good thing for us. But Krauthammer evidently gets a rise out of drone strikes and considers them more important than facilitating the most cost-effective way (from the standpoint of U.S. interests) of reining in a group such as AQAP.
Yet another fundamental deficiency in these sorts of attempts to undermine the nuclear negotiations is that they say nothing about internal Iranian politics. The outcome of the nuclear negotiations will have significant effects on Iranian politics, with consequences for the sorts of Iranian regional policies that these authors don’t like. Specifically, failure of the negotiations will be a major blow to the moderate and pragmatic elements represented by President Rouhani, and a boost to the hardliners who, just like hardliners on our side, don’t want an agreement and thrive on perceived threats from the other country. Failure of the negotiations would be more apt to increase, and certainly would not decrease, the sorts of Iranian behavior about which Krauthammer and Ross et al. are raising such alarms.
These more fundamental flaws hardly exhaust what is badly mistaken about these two pieces. Krauthammer, for example, is seemingly unaware of all the official, disinterested judgments on the subject when he asserts that Iran is “marching toward a nuclear bomb.” In fact, Iranian leaders probably have not decided to build a bomb. When bemoaning extensions of the negotiations he says not a word about the critical limitations on Iran’s program that the negotiations already have achieved. And most of his picture of supposed region-wide Iranian empire building is really an observation about the salience of the Sunni-Shia divide and its role in contemporary Middle Eastern conflict. If he is going to focus on that, he needs to explain why the United States should have any interest in taking sides in that sectarian dispute within the Muslim world.
Ross et al. are living in an alternative universe when it comes to just about everything they say about the nuclear negotiations. According to them, the talks are “stalemated”; no—as arms control and similar multilateral endeavors go, the progress has actually been rather rapid, on what is necessarily a complex and technical set of topics. The authors repeatedly talk about a “generous catalogue of concessions from the West” as contrasted with supposed Iranian inflexibility. Even a cursory look at the Joint Plan of Action, the preliminary agreement that established the obligations that the parties are observing now, shows how false that picture is. The West got what it wanted most, which included ending medium-level enrichment, restricting work on the most suspect reactor, limiting stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, and unprecedented levels of international monitoring inspection. The Iranians have not yet gotten what they want most, which is relief from the debilitating financial and oil sanctions that are still firmly in place.
There is so much vagueness in Ross et al.’s call for a “revamped coercive strategy” that we are left to wonder exactly what they have in mind. Their call for Washington to “reengage in the myriad conflicts and civil wars plaguing the region,” given that they are looking for more involvement than is going on right now, does not sound encouraging. It does not sound like what is wanted by the American people, who are not anxious right now to get bogged down in myriad conflicts and other people’s civil wars. And if the authors are worried about the extent of Iranian influence in Iraq, they need to explain how whatever they have in mind would reduce that influence, given that an eight-and-a-half year war with a peak of 170,000 U.S. troops left Iraq with more, not less, Iranian influence than before.
Ross, et al. conclude by stating, “The United States and Iran are destined to remain adversaries.” Oh, so it’s not a matter of facts and analysis and experience, but instead of destiny. Or rather, we are supposed to consider Iran to be forever nothing but an adversary because people such as these authors tell us that’s what we should believe. As long as enough people believe that, the United States and Iran really will be adversaries forever. Don’t believe people who want to lead us down such a path.
This article was first published by The National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.