“There are trivial truths and the great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.”
Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize Physicist,
Over the course of the next sixty days, Senate hearings on the Iran-and-P5+1 agreement (permanent members of the U. N. Security Council -- China, France, Russia, U. K., U. S, + Germany) on Iran’s nuclear program – JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – will examine the strengths and flaws of the agreement in what we can assume will be a strenuously heated debate, but one that will have generated significantly more light than heat when the clock has run out (or even if it keeps running, as it did in Vienna.)
To some, it’s an occasion for recalling Woody Allen’s favorite commencement speech admonition -- “Mankind is facing a crossroad - one road leads to despair and utter hopelessness and the other to total extinction . . .” but for many others it offers the opportunity for a healthy ‘national conversation’ about a set of issues that are of paramount importance to the country, to the selection of the 45th president of the United States, and to the prospects for relative stability in the Middle East region.
It would be understatement to say that the eyes of the world will be on this exercise in democracy, American-style, just as it’s important to understand that any decision taken by Congress and the President will be viewed in some parts of the globe as a goring of oxen.
Narrowly considered, the Senate debate will lead to an up-or-down vote on the agreement, subject to approval or veto by the President (and similar action by the other countries to the agreement, lest we forget.)
Broadly considered, because of the Middle East’s labyrinthine politics and the ways in which these shape global geopolitical decisions and policies, it is about much more than centrifuges, stockpiles, inspections, and verification protocols.
Despite having sixty days to make this decision, it’s likely that most members of the Senate and the concerned public have decided how they’ll vote. The value of the legislative interregnum is to provide some time-and-space allowing for a reasoned examination of the facts as well as the admitted imponderables and unintended consequences.
Much of the value of this process will rest with the leadership shown by Senate Foreign Relations Chair, Tennessee’s Bob Corker, and Ranking Member, Maryland’s Ben Cardin, both highly respected on both sides of the aisle. In addition, New York Senator Charles Schumer, the Democrat’s presumptive new Senate Leader, will be a key influencer owing to vehement opposition from New York’s Jewish constituency versus towering pressure from a President of his own party for whom this is magnum opus.
In consideration of the Iran question, we’ll offer these four observations:
Ignore hyperbole and pomposity. No matter from which politician, pundit, or seat of government it comes. It is neither “one of the darkest days in world history” nor “The worst agreement in U.S. diplomatic history.’ And while it isn’t a ‘reckless bet,’ neither is it ‘a triumph.”
It is a bargain, but not a ‘grand bargain.’ By design, it was agreed at the outset that these negotiations would be about the Iran’s nuclear program only and not concerned with other highly sensitive matters – e. g., support for terrorist organizations, human rights abuses, IRGC interference in various Middle East theaters of military operation. Had the policy palate been broader, neither China nor Russia would have participated; had they not, no deal with Iran would have been possible.
Simply put, the prospect of a “nuclear Iran” was the magnet and the glue of these negotiations – it’s what drew each of the six countries to the table and kept them there for such prolonged duration. Had there been an insistence on a ratcheting up or lengthening out of the sanctions, this would have emptied the P5 + 1 table.
This is a transactional, not a transformational deal. Borrowing political scientist James McGregor Burns’ terminology, transactional leadership is where "one person takes the initiative in making contact with others for the purpose of an exchange of valued things."
In this case, the P5 + 1 sought to create ‘an exchange of valued things’ with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nothing more, nothing less – they ‘gave’ on nukes, the P5 + 1 ‘gave’ on sanctions. And despite select stentorian pronouncements to the contrary, ‘gave” is not the same thing as ‘cave.’ This was never about changing attitudes or debating the moral high ground, arguably a colloquy best avoided with a Grand Ayatollah.
Disregard errant historical analogies. Obama is not Neville Chamberlain, nor is this agreement tantamount to appeasement. The Iran agreement is not history repeating itself with the North Korean ‘Agreed Framework.’ The President isn’t ‘dangerously naïve,’ and despite the exuberance of one candidate for the Democratic Party presidential nomination who said, “This is a victory for diplomacy over saber-rattling and could keep the United States from being drawn into another never-ending war in the Middle East,” there are no ‘victories’ in this deal, and it’s a little early to declare an end to armed conflict in the Levant and surrounding territory.
We’ll close this discussion with three perspectives from well-respected analysts and observers who see things differently, allowing you to consider the range of policy options.
First, a thoughtful, hopeful op-ed by Roger Cohen in the July 16th New York Times – “The Door to Iran Opens” – who favors the agreement while cautiously noting that Iran is ‘a repressive but pragmatic power’ that is ‘finely poised between a tough old guard forged in revolution and its aspirational Westward-looking youth.”
Of the agreement, he writes:
“If implemented, the agreement constitutes the most remarkable American diplomatic achievement since the Dayton Accords put an end to the Bosnian war two decades ago. It increases the distance between Iran and a bomb as it reduces the distance between Iran and the world. It makes the Middle East less dangerous by forestalling proliferation. In a cacophonous age of short-termism, it offers a lesson of stubborn leadership in pursuit of a long-term goal.”
Second, a candid, considered, and admirably labored analysis by Shadi Hamid, a fellow at Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and contributing writer at the Atlantic — “Why I’m Torn About the Iran Deal: Was it Worth It?”
“I’ve long wanted to support a deal with Iran. Now that an agreement has been struck, I do. But I do so with major reservations. I can’t help feeling that the United States has paid a tremendous cost for what can only be described as a narrow—if understandable—focus on the minutia of Iran’s nuclear program, including extremely technical questions about, for example, centrifuges. I’ve found it hard to relate to this sort of discussion, because I’ve never quite seen Iran’s nuclear capability as the issue. Iran’s nuclear program mattered of course, but it mattered more because of the kind of regional actor Iran happened to be . . . America’s Gulf allies, for all their faults, recognized this. What worried them most was Iran’s destabilizing role in the region. And while they exaggerated Iran’s meddling, while conveniently eliding their own, they were right to view Iran as a fundamentally negative force in places like Syria and Lebanon."
And finally, from Eric Edelman, a former Defense Department official in the George W. Bush administration and experienced diplomat, and Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former Senior Advisor at the State Department on Iran, a concise case against the JCPOA with an expression of hope that it can be properly amended:
“After two years of painstaking diplomacy, the Obama administration has finally concluded a nuclear agreement with Iran. A careful examination of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reveals that it concedes an enrichment capacity that is too large; sunset clauses that are too short; a verification regime that is too leaky; and enforcement mechanisms that are too suspect. No agreement is perfect, but at times the scale of imperfection is so great that the judicious course is to reject the deal and renegotiate a more stringent one. The way for this to happen is for Congress to disapprove the JCPOA.”
When we next meet, we’ll offer TMR’s take on the agreement, the status of the Senate hearings, and some soundings from the global community on the deal. In the meantime, let’s see what you conclude, and if you find reaching a satisfactory choice difficult, remember Bohr’s dictum, which suggests that in almost any great issues debate it is a faceoff of ‘great truths’ from which those who govern must choose.