Obama Iran Doctrine: Get the Deal You Can, Not the Deal You Want

Obama Iran Doctrine: Get the Deal You Can, Not the Deal You Want

Amid all the questions already raised about the Obama administration’s deal governing Iran’s nuclear program, we know this much already: It won’t be as hard to sell this on Capitol Hill as it was getting Tehran to come to terms, but it’ll be more bruising.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is due to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week, wasn’t even on his plane back from Vienna, where the accord was concluded last Tuesday, before the critics were rampant in the media:  

Former vice-president Dick Cheney on Fox News last Wednesday: “What the hell is the president thinking of when he thinks this is a great deal? [This] will in fact, I think, put us closer to the actual use of nuclear weapons than we’ve been at any time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.”  

Related: End of Sanctions Worth Hundreds of Billions to Iran

Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.VA) told Politico, “I want to find out why [lifting the ban on conventional weapons and ballistic missiles] came back in. It was not part of the original talks.”

Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, in a Wednesday morning press statement: “There is no nuclear deal or framework with Iran. There is only a list of dangerous U.S. concessions that will put Iran on the path to nuclear weapons.”

Another wary Democrat, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey said in a statement, “I’m concerned that the deal ultimately legitimizes Iran as a threshold-nuclear state…. The bottom line is: The deal doesn’t end Iran’s nuclear program—it preserves it.”

Senator Marco Rubio, the Floridian seeking the Republican presidential nomination, on CNN Sunday morning: “This deal violates promises the president made to the American people. It is not an anytime anywhere inspection system. It doesn’t have a real snapback provision; it says any contracts already negotiated stay in place—the snapback provision only applies to future contracts. It also requires us to help Iran—technically, economically, and develop themselves as a stronger regional power. That undermines our relationships with our Arab allies in the region and of course the State of Israel…. It almost guarantees that there will be an arms race in the Middle East.”

Related: Obama’s Iran Deal Gives a Free Pass to a Rogue’s Gallery

These and other such remarks address very serious concerns. But they’re not those everyone in Washington is talking about.

Is the inspections process outlined in the accord adequate? Is there an effective “snap back” mechanism whereby sanctions can be re-imposed if Iran breaches the terms? What about the provision permitting Iran to purchase conventional weapons on the international market in five years, and ballistic missile technology in eight?

When the State Department formally sends the Vienna document to Capitol Hill Monday, the floor opens to all such questions. They will be addressed, and must be, until they are satisfactorily resolved. I happen to think the pact is a good one, but at this early moment, all views must submit to hard inquiry. 

Clean and neat, you might think, but the two months of review now before us are unlikely to end in logically argued consensus. The Iran pact marks an historic turn in America’s conduct abroad, and for precisely this reason it is likely to come down to head counts on Capitol Hill and a presidential veto.

Don’t count this any daring prediction. It isn’t. The simple reality of what’s about to unfold is that logical argument will have little to do with this brawl—as I expect it to be. This will be about who is ready for an historic turn in American policy and who’s unprepared to accept any such thing.

Related: The 8 Most Important Things to Know About the Iran Deal

It’ll be interesting to watch as Congress holds the accord with Iran up to the light and assesses its intricate details. More interesting by far will be the surfacing of four very large implications that are the subtext of the document:

• As a diplomatic settlement, Obama and Kerry have just fashioned the most significant turn away from our militarized foreign policy since the Cold War’s end.

Both are explicit about this. “This by a wide margin is the most definitive path by which Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” Obama told Tom Friedman in a New York Times interview Tuesday. “And we will be able to achieve that… without having to engage in another war in the Middle East.” Kerry on the same theme, in a brief remark before leaving Vienna: “When I left college, I went to war. And I learnt in war the price that is paid when diplomacy fails.”

When a former community organizer and a Vietnam vet who opposed the war forge foreign policy, the peace generation speaks. 

• This deal is an implicit endorsement of multi-polarity, and so a sharp reply to the long “we-call-the-shots” tradition that Rubio articulated last week with perfect clarity.

Obama was explicit on this, too. We got this done, he told Friedman, “with the full cooperation of the world community.” He even thanked the Russians for “staying with us,” and “compartmentalizing” the Iran question amid all the obvious troubles between Washington and Moscow.

Related: Obama Faces Widespread Public Distrust of Iran Deal

• Many lawmakers will choke on this, but Kerry gradually built into the deal a recognition of Iran’s rights under international law. Much of Washington has deluded itself on this point for years, insisting that Iran’s “rights” to a peaceful nuclear program—and now conventional weapons—needed those quotation marks because only America dispensed such rights and it gave Iran none.

Game over—and it was a game no one else was playing. Anticipating (wisely) the argument that America should have coerced Tehran into eliminating all nuclear activities, Obama said at a lively press conference Wednesday, “There is nobody who thinks that Iran would or could ever accept that.”

• More abstractly but no less significantly, Obama and Kerry just made the case that the world’s non-Western majority is to be addressed as it is, with no illusions that it can somehow be remade in the American image. This is what the president and his top diplomat mean when they say—incessantly since last Tuesday—that there is no ambition to alter Iran’s behavior, ethos, or politics in any given context.

“Don’t judge me on whether this deal transforms Iran,” Obama told Friedman. “Judge me on one thing: Does this deal prevent Iran from breaking out with a nuclear weapon for the next 10 years.” For its vast import, I count this the most consequential of the Iran deal’s sub-surface implications.

Related: Timeline—The Troubled Story of US-Iran Relations

In my estimation, we’re in for two months of shadow play on these, the deeper questions arising from the Iran accord. Obama seemed to say as much in that come-out-swinging press conference last Wednesday. “If the alternative is that we should bring Iran to heel through military force, then those critics should say so, and that will be an honest debate,” Obama asserted.

That kind of debate is unlikely, and for the most regrettable of reasons: Too many of us are unable or unwilling to face the end of the long interim of American primacy in world affairs.

There has been an Obama Doctrine from the first. It has simply been too perilous politically to declare it. Late in his second term, the president has. The bullet points above outline four key tenets.