The Danger of Derailing the Iranian Nuclear Deal

by Paul Pillar

Inflection points in the history of U.S. foreign relations sometimes are marked by new departures and new roads taken. But they might instead entail blown opportunities to take new and better roads, with significant damage resulting from the failure to take them. That failure involves opportunity costs at a minimum, and other costs as well. We may be getting close to the latter type of inflection point, with significant danger that opponents of any agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program will succeed in wrecking the deal.

As of this writing the greatest chance of wrecking it appears to involve not what is going on at the negotiating tables in Europe but instead what the U.S. Congress may do back in Washington to sabotage the work of the diplomats. The energy for the Congressional wrecking ball comes, as it always has, from three sources.

One is a general need for a foreign enemy and a habit of viewing America’s role as one of militant and uncompromising confrontation with that enemy. This habit and felt need have roots in some broader American attitudes, although they are manifested most starkly in neoconservatism. Iran has been filling this role of needed enemy for some time.

A second is the strong opposition of the right-wing Israel government—with everything that customarily implies regarding American politics—to anyone making any agreement with Iran. This opposition serves the Israeli government’s purposes of fixing blame for regional problems firmly on someone else, of positing opposition to such an enemy as supposedly a basis for U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, and of diverting international attention from problems directly involving Israel itself.

The third driver, which has become especially relevant the more that the Iran negotiations have become a prominent effort in Barack Obama’s foreign policy, is the determination of much of the Republican opposition to oppose anything that Mr. Obama favors and to deny him any achievements. The heightened acrimony over the issue of immigration has made this even more of a factor than before, if that is possible. Amid talk about government shutdowns and freezing of all appointment confirmations, trashing of a diplomatic agreement with Iran would be done while barely batting an eyelash.

If the deal-wreckers succeed, we will have a negative turning point in U.S. foreign relations because the opportunity for any kind of nuclear deal with Iran will be lost for an indefinite future. The conditions that made it possible for the two sides to get as close to agreement as they now would quickly unravel in multiple ways. The Iranian president would in effect become a lame duck, the influence of hardliners in Iran would rise, and credibility that had been built up during the negotiations would dissipate. The alternative to whatever deal emerges from the current negotiations would be no deal at all.

Having an agreement emerge during a lame duck Congress was supposed to be the most sabotage-resistant timing, and it probably is. But expectations now are that what will most likely be announced this month is not a complete agreement but rather some version of an extension of the previous interim deal and a partial agreement with additional details yet to be negotiated. This situation unfortunately will be an invitation to those wielding the wrecking ball to do serious damage after the new Congress convenes. They probably will take multiple whacks with the ball. There is, for example, a bill sponsored by the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, that is designed to get a hasty vote of disapproval of the agreement before anyone would have much chance to study it. There also would be a push (most fervently from Senator Mark Kirk) to impose more sanctions, which would violate the interim agreements and provide cause for the Iranians to walk away from the table. The fact that keeping the terms of the current interim agreement in effect would achieve the presumed goal of freezing or rolling back the Iranian nuclear program would do little to slow down the deal-wreckers.

Blowing the opportunity for an agreement would be all the more a shame because, according to the preeminent criterion of preventing any Iranian nuclear weapon (not to mention other consequences of an agreement), the choice between a deal and no deal is almost a no-brainer. No deal would mean fewer restrictions on the Iranian program and lesser inspection and monitoring of it. Iran would have a much clearer path to a nuclear weapon, if it chose to take it, without an agreement than with one.

We are approaching a critical point in U.S. foreign relations. It is gut-check time especially for Democrats who have to decide whether they are going to take the responsible position for the sake of U.S. interests in the Middle East or instead be tempted into being part of a veto-proof Iran-bashing or “pro-Israel” majority. Perhaps taking the responsible route will be made a bit easier by seeing how the opposition to an agreement has become increasingly and blatantly partisan, as illustrated by a hard-line letter initiated this week by Kirk and Marco Rubio that got signatures from 43 Republican senators but not a single Democrat.

This article was published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission.

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  1. You are correct in every specific, however the “deal-wreckers” are nearly the entire Congress and the US is still a republic where the legislature is charged with transforming its policies into laws, hopefully based on what citizens want. That is a reality we have to accept and deal with.

  2. There was a very good deal on the table a year ago. The deal made sure that Iran’s nuclear program was under daily supervision and inspection by the IAEA, and all possible routes to the manufacturing of a nuclear weapon were blocked. It should have been seized at that time when the Obama Administration still had a lot of time to oppose the wreckers, and when President Rouhani’s government was still at the start of its four-year term and this could have boosted his chances of meaningful change in Iran and bringing Iran closer to the West. Sadly, too much caution and the antics of the French foreign minister prevented that deal.

    Even if an agreement is reached now, the atmosphere has been soured and it looks to many Iranians that the West is using every trick to deny them their nuclear rights. A great opportunity has been missed to mend fences with Iran, to help the Iranian people achieve greater freedoms and getting closer to the West, to bring some stability to the Middle East, and to prevent another disastrous war.

    Let us hope that even at this late hour, the pressures by Israel, the wrecking efforts by the French foreign minister and the desire to get a perfect deal at the cost of humiliating Iran will not prevent the two sides from reaching an agreement. With the entire Middle East in turmoil, with a new Cold War developing between the West and Russia, with the rise of unbelievable terrorism extending from Syria and Iraq, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Somalia, Libya and Nigeria, the issues that the world is facing are too serious for partisan games. Let us hope that wiser heads in Congress will understand this and will make a bold move to make a fresh start in East-West relations. The alternative is too awful to contemplate

  3. Well the IAEA has already called Iran out for not allowing inspections of its facilities during the past year. That doesn’t bode well for transparency. Khamenei has already issued a half dozen public speeches committing Iran to an increase in centrifuge capacity and most importantly, not relinquishing its push into missile technology for a warhead delivery system. At almost every turn, Iran’s mullahs have clearly demonstrated their lack of desire for a real deal, but rather to test the West and especially Obama’s desire for any kind of deal, even a bad one. If Iran can maintain its refining capacity, missile work and lack inspections and receive billions in sanctions relief then it gains everything. If not, it continues its “war economy” as Khamenei eloquently puts it and continues on its current path. That is the true strategy bring pursued here and we would be wise to meet it head on.

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