Sherlock Holmes, that nearly flawless source of dispassionate logic and reason, provided the proper perspective for consideration of the newly announced deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers that was announced today in Vienna. “When you have eliminated the impossible,” the world’s first consulting detective informed us in 1890, “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Similarly, in the case of the newborn agreement, when you have pushed your way past all the rhetoric and jabbering from critics, analysts and so-called experts, the question remains: how does no deal reduce the risk of Iran’s developing a nuclear weapon, and if it does not, how does no deal promote the prospects for a reduction in the rush to nuclearization of the Middle East?
One response was provided today by Naftali Bennett, the Israeli Minister of Education, who argues that sanctions have been effective and should be continued, not lifted as the agreement would allow. Perhaps the question is what Mr. Bennett views as “effective.” The sanctions have unquestionably imposed economic hardship on the people of Iran and political pressure on Tehran’s government, but they do not appear to have been hugely successful in slowing or discouraging weapons research. Bennett and other opponents of the agreement will need a much stronger argument to explain how allowing Iran’s nuclear program to continue will enhance the prospects of peace.
The most important step for addressing suspicions about the effectiveness and soundness of the new deal will lie in a thorough examination of its provisions. That task is something I will not be doing; I am reasonably confident I could read every word of the 150 page document and still not reliably understand its details. That is one reason I am so impressed that people like Speaker John Boehner, Foreign Relations chairman Ed Royce, and Sen. Lindsay Graham already are so certain the deal is a dog that should be rejected. Of course, that was their opinion before it was finalized as well.
Those details and nuances will be hashed out over the next two months in hearings and floor debates, not to mention op eds, editorials, analyses and stump speeches The real question is: what is going to happen, and on that point, I am prepared to make a prediction.
Congress will not block the deal. Oh, there will be the huffing and puffing that is the ritualistic response to such complex agreements Congress is called upon to review and approve, although they had nothing to do with negotiating (see earlier blog on Trade Promotion Authority). And while some in the Obama Administration (and in any Administration) bristle at the suggestion Congress should review the products of Executive negotiations, we have learned the hard way not to allow presidents to determine foreign and military policy by fiat. Congress fought hard for a role in reviewing that policy and should not abandon it.
But when all is said and done, Congress is not likely to kill the deal, however excruciatingly tempting that is for the Republican irreconcilables. Certainly, one can go to the bank that the GOP presidential candidates will all vote against the agreement: Cruz, Graham, Rubio and Paul are all nearly certain no’s. It would simply be too painful for them to go to the GOP base after voting to hand President Obama a massive foreign policy victory. But other Republicans in the House and Senate will have to consider the massive culpability that they will bring upon themselves by a “no” vote (although I admit many will happily do so).
If ever there was a Pottery Barn moment, this is it: the one thing you can be certain about is that something will go wrong in the Middle East over the next ten years. Defeat this agreement and you own responsibility for whatever calamity befalls the region, whether is it credibly related to Iran’s nuclear policy or not: “But for the defeat of the Iran agreement in 2015, the tragedy would not have occurred.” Republicans really do not want to have to dig themselves out of that crater for years, if not decades, to come.
One cannot help think about the parallels to the League of Nations fight a hundred years ago when that “little group of willful [Republican] men” in the Senate defeated the agreement negotiated by an outgoing American president. (Wilson’s famous quote was actually made two years earlier with respect to a proposal to arm U.S. merchant ships, but many of the same people helped sink the League agreement.) Rightly or not, for nearly a century, historians have pointed to the Senate action as crippling the League to the point of ineffectuality in preventing German rearmament and its horrific consequences.
Congress now has two months to chew over how to trash the negotiator without rejecting his work product. I would be truly shocked if Vice President Joe Biden does not take up residence in his Senate side office to work his magic with his former colleagues, as he has so often done on behalf of the Obama Administration. If there is a tough vote required, Biden invariably shows up with his “Aw shuck, guys, I know how tough this is; been here for 34 years; I get it even if those guys down in the White House don’t” shtick. Both he and Secretary of State John Kerry served as chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and will be the most powerful and well-connected Administration voices for making the case to House and Senate members.
It is possible, of course, that the House will actually pass a resolution disapproving the agreement, and given its loony record of inaction and mis-steps, as well as Boehner’s total rejection of the deal today, it just might. But there is no chance the Senate will vote against it, and even if it did, the President has already pledged to “veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of this deal.” It goes without saying that implementing the agreement through a veto of congressional legislation is not the desired path, and would not send a signal of credibility to our co-signatories, but it is a vastly more likely outcome than the success of any congressional action that kills the agreement. More likely is that no bill makes it to the President’s desk at all.
Opponents have an enormous challenge to overcome. They will not hesitate to argue that Obama is a bumbling yokel who got buffaloed by the Iranians, although it is a lot tougher to argue that case against the real negotiators, Under-secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Kerry. Critics also need to explain how the British, French, Chinese, Russians and Germans got buffaloed, since they shared the negotiating obligations.
A special challenge is presented by U.S. allies who oppose the deal, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Saudis have complex issues at stake, of course, and already are feeling the impact of lower oil prices as a result of the anticipated deal. To suggest the Saudis have some powerful economic self-interest in maintaining the Iranian sanctions seems pretty self-evident.
The Israelis are a different matter, and as the statements from Prime Minister Netanyahu and Bennett have illustrated, they will expend significant energy trying to inflame the Congress and the American Jewish community to rally against the deal. This strategy has real dangers for Israel in terms of diminishing its brand in the U.S., and with many American Jews as well (although portions of the U.S. community help inflame extreme opinions in Israel). For all the harsh rhetoric and saber-rattling, Israel – the one country in the region that does have nuclear weapons – has failed to present a credible alternative to an enforceable deal other than a military strike at Iran that would be an ineffective disaster on political, strategic and humanitarian grounds. So the blowhards in Jerusalem, like the blowhards in the Congress, will continue to fire off rhetorical missiles against this treaty, but they are only blanks because the alternative – no treaty and continued Iranian weapon development – is untenable for Israel and the world.
As the debate proceeds, we needs to look past the speechifying and posturing and at the bottom line: the chances for this deal being rejected is virtually zero. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest Obama or Kerry pencil in the date for the next Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, but they certainly deserve credit for a major advance that like all negotiations, legislation and agreements, requires clear-eyed vigilance and constant oversight.
Let us keep in mind the words of that other Ivy League, professorial president who confronted a recalcitrant Congress a century ago. “Unless you get the united, concerted purpose and power of the great Governments of the world behind this settlement,” Wilson said in September, 1919, “it will fall down like a house of cards. There is only one power to put behind the liberation of mankind, and that is the power of mankind. It is the power of the united moral forces of the world.” Let’s hope this time, the Congress looks beyond the pure politics and venomous dislike of the President and embraces this crucial step towards world peace.