There are many areas on which to focus one’s attention in the Iran deal. My own has been consistently drawn to the administration’s arguments in defense of the deal. Attended to, they are remarkably revealing in their implications about administration thinking, while not, in fact, actually being much remarked upon.
It is a tediously if necessarily repeated truism that negotiation requires compromise in positions about which the parties were previously uncompromising. Thus there will always be opportunity for absolutists not at the table to carp and condemn. Negotiators are charged with perfidy by those they represent only a little less often than battlefield turncoats. However, when the very subject of negotiation is a matter of life and death, and previously stated demands were presented as the conditions of life and death, against a foe more than hyperbolically and otherwise rhetorically malevolent, talking back concessions is a harder sell.
The administration has confidently affirmed without discomfort that the deal will protect the world from a nuclear Iran for somewhere between 10 and 15 years. As Leon Wieseltier wrote, “15 years is just a young person’s idea of a long time.” For many humanities Ph.D.s 10-15 years is about the time between that first seminar and the final granting of the degree. It is about three World Cups from now, the middle of a third presidential term after Obama leaves office, the start, looking backwards, of George W. Bush’s second term. Seem like a very long time?
Feels like a long time to junior; for mom and dad – where did the time go? For nations in geo-political historical time? Blink.
When the eyelid opens to see again, what does it see? Iran as a changed nation, no longer the active state sponsor of terrorism it remains today? If it is not changed, will an economic sanctions regime will be re-imposed, from scratch, all over again? Based upon what international will to challenge Iran to the ultimate end result that did not extend the length of the agreement this time around, when all was at last in place in an arrangement of pieces not likely to be duplicated?
Some other president will do what is necessary? What is that? Are we witnessing at the end of this long negotiation, unacknowledged, the most elaborately primed kick of the can down the road ever attempted?
The contention over a nuclear Iran has always been founded in the insistence that there be none, certainly not militarily, and this has always been the stance of President Obama. It is a position grounded only in a credible military threat. There was no such credible threat towards North Korea – a lot of bluster, but no brawn – and there is now a nuclear North Korea. The delicate balance for a leader so situated and genuinely open to, but not invested in, negotiations is how to extend the one open hand while withholding in the rear the other cocked fist. There is little doubt for other than the most uncritically devoted that Obama has not maintained this balance. For all of the drone-driven anti-terrorist mini wars he has maintained, his wise determination not to do “stupid stuff” abroad has also revealed what turned out to be the unwise bluster he would not, as in Syria, back up. It does not matter what the truth is, Obama came to be perceived by his critics and his enemies as fatally invested in the negotiations, offering just a lot of talk about “options” and “tables.”
Too often, when challenged about concessions in Geneva, the Obama-Kerry response essentially has been “you’re a fool to think you could have done better.” Sometimes that response is the knowledge of the negotiating table; other times, it is the revelation of a hand weakly played. Outside the room, we can only judge by the terms and general conditions.
When it became known that the terms of the IAEA investigations into the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s program were contained in separates agreements between the IAEA and Iran, on which the U.S. was briefed, but to which it was not privy and has no access, Secretary Moniz told the Senate committee, ‘“These kinds of technical arrangements with the IAEA are as a matter of standard practice not released publicly or to other states.”
It is, said Moniz, a matter of ““customary confidentiality.”
Members of the committee were as startled by the explanation as Kerry, alongside Moniz, was stumbling in offering it. Is a negotiated nuclear containment agreement with an internationally aspirant, totalitarian theocratic state “standard practice” and a “customary” matter?
“This is the way the agency works with countries,” Moniz also said. “If countries choose to make the documents public, then the IAEA of course can do so.”
Which is it, then, that we are to understand?
That the U.S. did not demand as a condition of the agreement that Iran authorize the IAEA to make the documents, not public, but available to the P-5?
Or that the U.S. did make the demand, Iran rejected it, and the U.S. accepted that rejection?
Would Iran have scuttled the deal over the issue? Would it not have been telling had they been so willing?
There are multiple such puzzlements over life and death matters. There is the transformation of the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that Kerry now says he never heard of into a supposed “24” days that turn out to be many more, and the embarrassing confusions over it (see the update near the bottom). Yet despite the array of problematic elements, the administration, which argued, then, for everyone to wait to see the agreement before challenging it, argues now that we must accept this deal or have war.
“If we walk away, we walk away alone,” Kerry said.
Our partners are not going to be with us. Instead, they will walk away from the tough multilateral sanctions that brought Iran to the table to begin with. Instead, we will have squandered the best chance we have to solve the problem through peaceful means.
As the administration constructed the context in which the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been presented, the following might be argued now by Kerry about any less than satisfactory agreement:
If Congress rejects this, Iran goes back to its enrichment. The Ayatollah will not come back to the table … the sanctions regime completely falls apart.
We will have set ourselves back. I don’t know how I go out to another country if that happens and say: ‘Hey, you ought to negotiate with us,’ because they will say: ‘Well, you have 535 secretaries of state in the United States. We don’t know who we are negotiating with. Whatever deal we make always risks being overturned.
If this is so, we may ask, how has it come to be so?
But first, let us note that it was a determined, controversial course set by the White House not to treat an Iran deal as a treaty. The Senate has a constitutional, democratic role in the approval of treaties and it has nearly as long a history of rejecting them. The constitutional requirement of a two thirds vote tells us that the framers intended the treaty to require overwhelming support. It is not without precedent even for a potentially presidency-defining treaty to be rejected by the Senate. (See Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles.) In this history, and in this constitutional requirement, the nation and its founders have anticipated the critique of “you have 535 secretaries of state in the United States. We don’t know who we are negotiating with. Whatever deal we make always risks being overturned.” We have still managed to negotiate treaties.
President Obama did not want to meet Woodrow Wilson’s fate. John Kerry was clear about the motivation in his testimony to congress. The choice to frame the Iran deal as an executive agreement rather than a treaty was not academic.
“I spent quite a few years trying to get treaties through the US Senate, and frankly, it’s become physically impossible,” Kerry said. “You can’t pass a treaty anymore.”
So the administration, first, constructed a process aimed at easing the prospects of approval over the opposition of congressional opponents, then argued that skeptics should hold their comments until the deal the process intended to achieve was reached, and now that is has been reached, argues that it was the only possible deal and that the only alternative to it – the consequence of rejecting the deal – is war. It is a kind of rhetorical blackmail. It is a blackmail that utilizes, too, as its key pressure point – that threat of war – the very details it has all along diminished and even mocked coming from Benjamin Netanyahu.
Time to Breakout
In September 2012 at the United Nations, with the aid of his ball bomb and fuse chart, and calling for the establishment of “red line,” Netanyahu famously claimed,
By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage.
From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb. [Emphasis added]
Netanyahu was mocked for the cartoon diagram, but as usual, too, was derided, in the later words of the Guardian, for his “alarmist tone” as someone, “who has long presented the Iranian nuclear programme as an existential threat to Israel and a huge risk to world security.”
The Guardian would then, early this year, with a Wikileaks release, headline that “Leaked cables show Netanyahu’s Iran bomb claim contradicted by Mossad.” A closer reading of the cables told a different story, but that is not the point here. A few months later, the White House offered its own, visual jab at the Israeli prime minister by sending out a tweet that used the bomb graphic.
Note that the consequences of “Without the Deal” are bad, but unspecific. Now, however, at the White House’s Iran Deal website, while sparing us a repeat of that particular graphic (maybe with good reason), the White House claims the following:
As it stands today, Iran has a large stockpile of enriched uranium and nearly 20,000 centrifuges, enough to create 8 to 10 bombs. If Iran decided to rush to make a bomb without the deal in place, it would take them 2 to 3 months until they had enough weapon-ready uranium (or highly enriched uranium) to build their first nuclear weapon.
Putting it together, to clarify, in September 2012 Netanyahu projected as late as the summer of 2013 for the completion of medium enrichment, with perhaps a few months more before the development of sufficient enriched uranium for a bomb. As a reminder, the interim agreement between the P5-1 and Iran was reached in November 2013. That is a few months after the summer of that year. According to the interim agreement, all progress in Iran’s nuclear enrichment was halted for the period of negotiations toward a more lasting agreement. Now, at the conclusion of the current negotiations, the Obama administration is warning, in rather alarmist tones, that failure to accept the JCPOA will leave the world confronting the almost immediate threat of a nuclear Iran. The timelines match, with a “few months” wiggle room, and the administration is, in other words, setting a “red line,” in the agreement itself, by warning that the consequences of a failure to accept it could be war.
The only difference in this between Netanyahu then and Obama now are the terms of the agreement and the willingness to demonize the one and lionize the other.
Instead of chest-beating that rejects the idea of even talking to our adversaries, which sometimes sounds good in sound bites but accomplishes nothing, we’re seeing that strong and principled diplomacy can give hope of actually resolving a problem peacefully. Instead of rushing into another conflict, I believe that sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way must always be a last resort, and that before we put their lives on the line we should exhaust every alternative. [Emphasis added]
This disappointing distortion is more characteristic of the President’s conservative political enemies than his own customary reasoned argumentation. We do see, of course, the usual-suspect neocon chest beaters, but there are also many others, open to talk, offering good, reasoned criticisms of the deal – as well as those alternatives that the President and the Secretary of State habitually assert are absent from the critiques, but which, rather, they simply do not wish to credit.
Far from fitting the stale, auto-rhetorical charge of “rushing” to war, American policy toward Iran has involved a multi-decade effort, over three presidencies constructively to engage the Iranian government. It has included a formal acknowledgement of the CIA role in the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the easing of a previous regime of economic sanctions. It has also consisted of an earlier offer from the George W. Bush administration that Iran rejected.
The open hand of the Clinton administration was spurned. The more generous offer of the Bush administration, when Iran was not sufficiently hurting, was spurned. There is no doubt that the current sanctions drove Iran to negotiate. The matter now in dispute is how well the U.S. played its hand at the table. The trump card in that hand was always the prospect of American, or an American-Israeli, use of force. The ideal play of a trump lies in its effective force when not used, activated by the credible threat of use. That effective force is some product of a genuine willingness to use the trump and the opponent’s belief in such willingness. What have been the presiding conditions for that belief among the Iranians? What are they now?
The former Massachusetts senator also dismissed the idea that military strikes were a realistic way of containing Iran’s nuclear potential.
“Iran has already mastered the fuel cycle,” [Kerry] said. “They have mastered the ability to produce significant amounts of fissile material. You can’t bomb away that knowledge any more than you can sanction it away.”
The tone of the administration’s pitch to Congress appears to have shifted in recent weeks from actively selling the merits of the deal to stressing the lack of viable alternatives….
Imagine the conversations this kind of talk stimulates in the covert corridors of Tehran.
So desperate is the administration in defense of its deal that is actively undermining Israel’s international position and legitimizing Iranian arguments
Said Kerry of a potential Israeli strike, “Iran would then have a reason to say, ‘Well, this is why we need the bomb.’”
Rather than defend any Israeli preemptive act as a response to the constant threat of Iranian annihilation of Israel, Kerry has framed such an act as a justification for the development of an Iranian nuclear capability.
In light of this flaccid posture, continuing pro forma declarations that “all options remain on the table” are met now by Iranian leaders with disbelief:
Kerry and other US officials “have repeatedly admitted that these threats have no effect on the will of the people of Iran and that it will change the situation to their disadvantage,” Zarif claimed.
They are even met with derision:
“The US should know that it has no other option but respecting Iran and showing modesty towards the country and saying the right thing,” Rouhani told a crowd in the western Iranian city of Sanandij on Sunday.
“The table they are talking about has broken legs.”
There is even reason to believe that this administration is willing, in the end, to accept a nuclear Iraq. Argued Vice President Biden,
“Imagine stopping them now in the Gulf of Aden” — referring to Iran’s backing for the Houthi insurgency in Yemen — “and stopping them if they had a nuclear weapon,” Biden said. “As bad, as much of a threat as the Iranians are now to destabilizing the conventional force capability in the region, imagine what a threat would be if we had walked away from this tight deal.”
The U.S. has not stopped Iran in the Gulf of Aden. Now it acknowledges how further disarmed it would feel before a nuclear armed Iran. And Biden here predicates that nuclear Iran as the alternative to acceptance of the current Iran deal.
Given the arguments of government officials and of many supporters in general, it is not unreasonable to question, with Iran, as it was with North Korea in a far less combustible area of the world, whether the will is actually there to prevent a nuclear Iran.
That administration officials are swinging wildly in this fight is obvious. They are throwing whatever argumentative punches they think will land, including roundhouse swings that hit their friends and hooks they launch from the knees that end on their own noses. If, in the end, they do win this fight, and the deal passes, and Iran cheats, or develops its bomb in thirteen years, the best chance to play the trump without actually slamming it on the table will have been squandered.