Whatever one thinks of the accord governing Iran’s nuclear program, Iran and the six nations that sat across from it for 18 tough months of negotiation—the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China—will begin this autumn to implement the deal they cut last July.
In the end, a procedural maneuver in the Senate kept the accord’s many vigorous opponents from even voting on a resolution of disapproval. Critics in both parties now vow further resistance, so the war this deal ignited isn’t over. But I don’t see the bitter fights to come bearing much fruit.
What a difference two years makes. With a weird symmetry, the U.N.’s 70thGeneral Assembly, which opens Tuesday, represents a finished job as of last week. Two years ago, Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s just-elected president, extended a reformist’s hand to mend a long-running breach with Western powers over Iran’s nuclear activities.
The world’s a different place now. If you buy the Obama administration’s argument (and I have from the moment Rouhani took the podium back then), we’re safer now with the accord than we would be without it. Moreover, a number of relationships are now in a state of flux.
You won’t like this moment if you find change unsettling. But if you recognize that change is inevitable, you’ll understand that the point is to forget about status quo restorations and manage the flux constructively.
Here’s my list of the political and diplomatic ties to watch—those now shaken loose from their moorings:
• U.S.-Israel relations have been unmistakably altered. Question 1: Is the evident new distance permanent? Question 2: Is this a bad thing, as generally assumed?
Answers: Yes and no.
If the assumption of perfectly matched interests between the U.S. and Israel were ever true, it isn’t any longer.
It’s easy to think that the rift between the White House and the Netanyahu government comes down to personalities and differing views on the Iran pact. Hence the fissure will close in the course of election cycles and changing administrations, the logic runs.
This interpretation is simply too narrow. If the assumption of perfectly matched interests between the U.S. and Israel were ever true, it isn’t any longer. They’re close but not congruent.
Washington desperately needs more room than its traditional ties to Israel allow rethinking its Middle East policies across the board. The Iran accord is at once a case in point and a catalyst in a renovation process Washington must undertake.
It follows that the distance we now see between the U.S. and Israel is healthy, providing we grasp the implications fully. The challenge for Israel as well as the U.S. is managing, as against repairing, ties that have often seemed to shrink Washington’s prerogatives and leave Israel (1) undesirably dependent and (2) underdeveloped in its relations with the Arab world. Anything in diplomacy that goes on autopilot will eventually be outmoded.
A corollary here. Immediately following the administration’s ploy in the Senate last week, the talk in Washington was that the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee had suffered a setback but that it would recoup the lost ground. I don’t think so and I hope not.
Lobbies are lobbies—damn them all in my book—but Aipac’s immense power and resources have long represented an inappropriate intrusion into the American political process. Just as relations are shifting, so will—and so should—Aipac’s influence over voting in both houses of Congress. On this point, we’ll have to see.
• Whatever people now say or think about Washington-Tehran relations, there are no fixed rules in this game anymore. Secretary of State Kerry assures critics of the deal that U.S. cooperation with Iran in achieving the deal will not extend to any other matter, but let’s think about this.
First, there may indeed be no tactical collaboration or coordinated action between the U.S. and Iran, especially when Ayatollah Khamenei continues to call for the destruction of Israel. But asserting as much is intended almost entirely to assuage Capitol Hill’s Iran hawks. Second, it’s a mistake to declare this “policy.”
Good diplomats let circumstance dictate the extent of collaborations based on common interests, and circumstances in the Middle East now change more often than the sunrise. Case in point: Syria and the willingness of Russia and Iran to back the Assad government in a common front against the Islamic State while negotiating a political transition in Damascus. However bitter the irony, the case for Washington’s participation is a strong one.
• The conservative position on American foreign policy, notably but not only on Capitol Hill, has just suffered a significant setback. Regardless of your stripe, it’s important to recognize that foreign policy traditionalists risk not only defeat on the accord itself, but also isolation.
A reliable European source told me the other day that after the agreement was reached in July, senior officials from Washington’s European partners in the P5+1 negotiating group met with leading senators to warn them that a “no” vote would leave them in the political tundra. The encounter had a sobering impact, this source said.
I think it would have done just what the Europeans warned. And this point must not be lost as legislators in both houses (and both parties) consider new sanctions against Iran as a side-door effort to impair, if not scuttle, the agreement as it is implemented.
No one will pay attention to any such sanctions. As Kerry warned in a remarkable appearance in the Reuters newsroom in New York recently, in such a case “our allies are going to look at us and laugh.” And Washington relations with longstanding allies—never mind adversaries—will suffer.