The Fantasy and Folly of the “Better Deal” with Iran

by Derek Davison

Those in and out of Congress who are working to reject or otherwise scuttle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) insist that their goal in opposing the nuclear accord isn’t war with Iran. Rather, they say that they want to see the U.S. and its partners negotiate a “better” deal with Tehran. How much of this argument is sincere and how much is designed to ward off accusations of warmongering is anybody’s guess, though occasionally you do see signs of cracks in the façade. But even if you take the “better deal” crowd at its word, their arguments are not only wildly out of touch with reality but potentially dangerous to America’s standing around the world.

At an event sponsored by the Arms Control Association (ACA) on Tuesday, Colin Kahl, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, explained the deepest flaw inherent in the “better deal” argument, which is that the rest of the world is exceedingly unlikely to renegotiate the JCPOA simply because the U.S. Congress demands it:

Let’s be clear about another thing.  The rest of the world believes this deal is the better deal. The rest of the world believes this deal is the better deal. If we walk away now, there is no chance, zero, of the rest of the world going along with us. As [Brent Scowcroft] said, if we walk away, we walk away alone.

Keep in mind, the sanctions that we have put in place on Iran are not only costly on Iran, they are costly on countries that want to do business with Iran or buy oil from them. Other countries have gone along with these sanctions, especially during the Obama administration, because they have agreed with our policy objectives of seeking a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, and they’ve also believed our promise that sanctions would eventually be lifted when we got the kind of nuclear deal that we now have in front of us.

During the 1990s, we had secondary sanctions on Iran’s energy sector, which the rest of the world ignored because they didn’t agree with our policy objectives. We’ve seen this movie before. If we walk away, it’s hard to see us keeping the international coalition currently isolating Iran together. Europe would be divided, Russia would undoubtedly bolt, and many Asian countries, especially China and India, would be eager to buy Iran’s oil again.

Consequently, sanctions will erode and the international consensus around our Iran policy will collapse, and guess what? You can’t drive to a better deal with less leverage and less international support. It defies the laws of political gravity.

But rejecting the JCPOA would not only be more likely to lead to no deal than to a better deal, it would also have potentially enormous impacts on America’s ability to negotiate international agreements in the future. As Kahl put it:

More broadly, killing the deal would cripple our global leadership. My boss, the vice president, often remarks that as he travels the world, and he’s gone to I think almost every country in the world across more than 40 years in foreign policy, he says the one thing that he hears more than anything else these days, and I heard my fair share of this as well, is concerns about whether the United States can govern.

It’s not a question about our power. We are the most powerful country in the world. We have the most powerful military, we have the most dynamic economy, we have the most vibrant population. Nobody doubts that we remain the world’s indispensable power. What they doubt is whether we can govern.

So if Congress wipes away this deal, either through the actions this week or through future legislation aimed to tank this deal, others around the world will ask whether we can live up to our commitments and exercise the kind of leadership they expect of us.

Any concerns that the rest of the world has about America’s ability to govern itself must only be increasing, as the Republican Party appears to be coming apart at the seams in a mad scramble to find some backdoor way to scuttle the JCPOA or, barring that, to make as much political hay out of the deal as it possibly can.

Kahl isn’t just speculating that it would be impossible to negotiate a new deal if the JCPOA is somehow rejected or that congressional efforts to undermine the deal threaten America’s global leadership. Speaking at the same ACA event, Ellie Geranmayeh, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, described European concerns over the JCPOA debate in Washington:

[F]or European countries, this deal and this negotiation has always been seen through a multilateral lens. It’s one that there are six or potentially seven stakeholders to. And for the most advanced nuclear states in Europe, mainly the UK and France and Germany, this is as good as a deal as it’s going to get in their perspective…At the same time they’re looking at the U.S. debate, which for the last two months, has really morphed into one of U.S. domestic politics. It’s not being seen as a multilateral accord, it’s being looked at as a U.S.-Iran deal, which is entangled therefore in a lot of political baggage and historic enmities between these two countries. They’ve seen the millions of dollars that are being poured by both sides, advocates and opponents of the deal against what the negotiations have created or in defense of them, and really this debate on this alternative or fantasy deal is just completely absent in Europe at the moment. They’re looking at what’s next to come.

And there’s a worrying sense I think that Congress really expects Europe to follow suit in whatever is decided within the legislative organ here. There have been comments that Europe can either be persuaded or coerced into either renegotiating this deal or changing the parameters, and I think this is far from certain. And the tone that’s actually come out of this debate, I think can have damaging repercussions for the transatlantic unity and sanctions framework going ahead.

The European Union has already approved the JCPOA and, as Geranmayeh noted, would undoubtedly be uncomfortable setting a precedent that its foreign policy can or should be subordinated to the whims of political parties or lobbying groups in Washington. Describing Iran as a “test case” for joint U.S.-EU sanctions, she argued that European nations will be less likely to join future sanctions efforts (or to continue participating in ongoing sanctions against Russia) if they believe that the U.S. views those sanctions as forms of indefinite punishment, rather than means to a political end.

The potential ramifications of rejecting the JCPOA extend beyond the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and affect America’s ability to engage in future multilateral diplomatic efforts. JCPOA opponents must explain not only what a better deal should look like, but how they plan to successfully achieve one without sacrificing America’s international credibility in the process.

Photo: Colin Kahl (courtesy of Third Way Think Tank via Flickr)

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.


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