The Real Deal on the Iran Deal

Ever since the election of Barack Obama the goals in American politics have boiled down to this: what matters most isn’t how a political decision compares to ones idyllic outcome. It’s how it compares to the alternative. It’s true for ObamaCare, (the GOP steadfastly insists on repeal but offers no alternative) and it’s true for the latest GOP political display of ineptitude…how to deal with Iran and their desire to harness nuclear energy.iran-deal-cartoon-luckovich

Since nothing has changed, the thinking (or lack thereof) regarding the Iran deal, announced Tuesday between Iran and six world powers will be hotly debated along strictly political party lines.

As the inevitable disagreements in Congress begin, opponents of the agreement essentially have three alternatives.

  1. Kill the deal, and the interim agreementthat preceded it, and do nothing. This has been the GOP standard position for seven years. In the case of the Iran deal this would mean Iran would be free to continue its nuclear program unfettered.
  2. Always a GOP favorite, but American and Israeli officials military and political leaders have warned that military action against Iranian nuclear facilities would probably result in a calamitous regional conflict…not to mention ineffective, if not counterproductive, in delaying Iran’s path to the bomb. Meir Dagan, who oversaw the Iran file as head of Israel’s external spy agency, the Mossad, from 2002 to 2011, has saidan attack “would mean regional war, and in that case you would have given Iran the best possible reason to continue the nuclear program.” Michael Hayden, who ran the CIA under George W. Bush from 2006 to 2009, has warned that an attack would “guarantee that which we are trying to prevent: an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon.”
  3. Most critics of the Iran deal recommend a third alternative: increase sanctions in hopes of forcing Iran to make further concessions. But the very people suggesting this are the same ones who vehemently eschewed this plan of action when it came to Iraq, which posed none of the same propensities towards nuclear proliferation, nor had any connection to 9/11.

In the short term, the third alternative looks a whole lot like the first. Whatever its deficiencies, the Iran deal places specific limits on Iran’s nuclear program and augments oversight of the program. If the U.S. is going to insist on imposing its will in places it doesn’t need to be, then abandoning the agreement in hopes of getting tougher restrictions makes no sense at all because they ensure that, at least for the time being, there are some restrictions, where up until now, there were barely any restrictions on the program at all.

If Congress, assuming it somehow manages to do anything more significant than renaming post office branches, passes new sanctions, it’s extremely likely that the current economic pressure on Iran will decrease, not increase. The United States has virtually no economic ties to Iran, whereas Europe, Asia, Russia, etc., have more influence and thus infinitely more means of domestic pressure to wield against Iran if sanctions became necessary to reinstate.

The only reason that countries have abided by international sanctions against Iran, albeit to varying degrees, is because the Obama administration convinced their leaders that sanctions were a necessary preface to any hope of a diplomatic solution. If the U.S. Congress blocks the deal, Iran’s trading partners will certainly not shoot themselves in the foot economically just to appease a do-nothing U.S. Congress with approval numbers lower than the IQ of a chicken.

Britain, America’s staunchest ally in the region, declared in May, that sanctions have already reached “the high-water mark”, with Germany’s ambassador adding that, “If diplomacy fails, then the sanctions regime might unravel.”

In other words, actual alternatives to the deal are grim, not that you would ever hear that from Congressional members or grandstanding presidential candidates.

As a perfect example of critics having no alternative, House Majority Leader John Boehner, when asked on a Sunday morning talk fest what happens if the Iran deal falls apart at the seams naturally followed with hollow generalities: “No deal is better than a bad deal,” Boehner replied.

In other words, Boehner evaded the question. The only way to determine if a “bad deal” is worse than “no deal” is to consider the “No deal” consequences. This is exactly what Boehner refused to do.

Instead, he changed the subject: Rather than comparing the agreement to the actual alternatives, he compared it to the objectives that the Obama administration supposedly outlined at the start of the talks.

On the very same Sunday talk fest, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, (the leader of the 47  idiotic, Senate GOP traitors who chose to directly try to sabotage the negotiations illegally) did the same thing, “We have to remember the goal of these negotiations from the beginning,” Cotton said. “It was to stop Iran from enriching uranium and developing nuclear-weapons capability.”

During the same interview, Cotton was again prodded to steer the conversation away from GOP talking points and toward real-world alternatives, but to no avail.  “What about an alternative explanation, which a lot of experts believe, which is that they would say, ‘Forget negotiations, we’re going to race towards a breakout on a nuclear bomb?’”

Cotton’s answer: present a “credible threat of military force” and the Iranians will abandon “their nuclear-weapons capabilities.” Naturally, it was an unfounded answer. The senator never explained why threatening war would make Iran capitulate now, given that the United States and Israel have been making such threats for over a decade. Nor did he address the consequences of a military strike, which former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said could “prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations.”

Instead, Cotton returned to comparing the nuclear deal to America’s ideal preferences. The Obama administration, he said, should “get back to that original goal of stopping Iran from developing any nuclear-weapons capabilities.”

But let’s assume that Obama, or George W. Bush before him, did outline goals that the current deal doesn’t meet. So what? Those goals are irrelevant, unless Cotton and company have a plausible alternative plan for achieving them by scrapping the existing deal, which they don’t. It’s the ObamaCare scenario slapped clumsily onto Iran. Do nothing, claim facts not in evidence, generalize non-existent alternatives and hope that the electorate has become so tired of political double-speak that they won’t notice the flaws in their logic.

When critics focus relentlessly on the gap between the actual deal and a perfect one, what they’re really doing is blaming Obama for the fact that the United States is neither infallible nor omnipotent, which isn’t surprising given that American omnipotence is the guiding assumption behind contemporary Republican foreign policy. Ask any GOP presidential candidate except Rand Paul what they propose doing about any global hotspot and their answer is the same: be tougher…threaten military action…brandish our sidearm: “America must take a harder line against Iran’s nuclear program, against ISIS, against Bashar al-Assad, against Russian intervention in Ukraine and against Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea,” blah blah blah.

The United States cannot bludgeon Iran into total submission, either economically or militarily. The U.S. tried that in Iraq. The GOP has an ongoing foolish notion that the rest of the world still fears America despite the damage austerity has done to our education, our infrastructure and our influence on the world stage. The bubble from which the GOP operates is not only dangerous; it’s borderline delusional.

If you believe American power in the region is limited, this agenda is absurd. America needs Russian and Chinese support for an Iranian nuclear deal. Accepting that American power is limited means prioritizing. It means making concessions to regimes and organizations you don’t like in order to put more pressure on the ones you fear most. That’s what Franklin Roosevelt did when allying with Stalin against Hitler. It’s what Richard Nixon did when he reached out to communist China in order to increase America’s leverage over the U.S.S.R. It’s what sane leaders do.

And it’s what George W. Bush refused to do after 9/11, when he defined the “war on terror” not merely as a conflict against al-Qaeda but as a license to wage war, or cold war, against every anti-American regime supposedly pursuing weapons of mass destruction. This massive overestimation of American power inspired the war in Iraq, which has taken the lives of a half-million Iraqis and almost 4,500 Americans, and cost the United States over $2.5 trillion. And it motivated Bush’s refusal to negotiate with Iran, even when Iran made dramatic overtures to the United States. Negotiations, after all, require mutual concessions, which Bush believed were unnecessary; if America just kept flexing its muscles, the logic went, Iran’s regime would collapse.

Obama has certainly made mistakes in the Middle East. But behind his drive for an Iranian nuclear deal is the effort to bring America’s ends into alignment with its means. That means recognizing that the United States cannot bludgeon Iran into total submission, either economically or militarily. The U.S. tried that in Iraq and failed. It tried that in Vietnam and failed.

And it is precisely this recognition of America’s limits that makes the Iran deal so infuriating to Obama’s critics. It codifies the limits of American power. And recognizing the limits of American power also means recognizing the limits of American exceptionalism.

It means recognizing that no matter how deeply Americans believe in their country’s unique virtue, the United States is subject to the same restraints that have governed other great powers. For the Republican right, that’s a deeply unwelcome realization tantamount to its deeply flawed perception of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

For most other Americans it’s a relief. Pretending to be infallible has taken a terrible toll on the lopsided preponderance of Americans. We’ve exported our manufacturing might. We’ve let our roads and bridges deteriorate into developing-nation mediocrity. We’ve turned our back on science and education in order to protect the 1%. Our fourth estate has degraded itself beyond recognition and morphed into bombastic blowhards and blonde sycophants.

We simply must take off the rose-colored glasses and reject the notion that a simple answer that is clear and precise, but bullshit, will always have more power in the world than a complex answer that is true.

Harvey Gold