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The Iran Deal Goes to Washington

Senators Netanyahu.jpg
Gary Cameron/Reuters/Corbis
Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Charles Schumer, and Bob Corker, Washington, DC, March 3, 2015

The first thing to know about all the noise being made in Washington over the nuclear deal with Iran is that there’s a lot of play-acting going on. A number of politicians, particularly Democrats, are striking positions to get them past this early period; several significant Democratic Senators simply aren’t yet ready to say they’re for the deal, though many of them are expected to be. The real question isn’t where they are now but where they’ll end up. Therefore some statements shouldn’t be taken literally. When Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said recently that he had questions about the coming deal, some journalists and other observers interpreted this as a sign of trouble; but his statement simply reflected political prudence. To be taken seriously on such a weighty issue, a politician needs to be seen as having carefully considered his or her position.

This may be where the Republicans are making a mistake. Lindsey Graham was caught out by reporters on Tuesday when he condemned the deal and then, in response to their challenges, admitted that he hadn’t read the more than one-hundred-page agreement, nor did he know what was in it. House Speaker John Boehner also immediately denounced the deal. Boehner’s tack, which others also employ, is to charge that the agreement isn’t as tough on Iran as what the president said he would seek. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who officially entered the 2016 presidential race the day before the Iran deal was formally announced, said that it should be abrogated by the next president on day one—which would free Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon and create an unholy mess with our allies. The Republicans’ rush to judgment undermines their position.

In fact, knowledgeable analysts say that the final deal fulfills what was outlined in the interim framework agreement announced in April. Jim Walsh, a security and nuclear policy expert at MIT, describes it as “the most intrusive multilateral agreement in nuclear history.” According to Walsh, the deal’s inclusion of a “snapback” provision—the rapid restoration of sanctions if Iran is caught cheating—is “unprecedented.”

Yet I can find no one on the side of the deal who thinks that it will have majority support in either chamber, which means that the president will veto what Congress sends him. Therefore, beneath all the rhetoric, the realists here are looking for one thing: whether there will be enough votes in the Senate or the House—one-third plus one of the members—to uphold that veto. (A veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both chambers.) It’s believed that there’s a sufficient number of House Democrats who will vote to sustain it. But it’s assumed that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Boehner will arrange for the Senate to vote before the House does and the deal’s supporters fear that if there’s a strong vote against it in the Senate the votes in the House to sustain a veto might crumble. A strategist for the pro-deal side told me, “A number of those House votes on our side are squishy.” So what happens in the Senate is the crucial question.

With a few possible exceptions, the Senate Republicans are being written off as against the deal. But it cannot be assumed that Democrats will feel obliged to vote in favor of what could be the president’s crowning achievement: in 2014 many of them showed themselves capable of keeping their distance from him in an effort to save their own skin. If they think the deal with Iran will make them vulnerable in the next election, they might well vote against it. Their ultimate decision could be no more worldly than that.

I asked a couple of well-informed vote-counters if they thought the president had the thirty-four Senate votes needed to block an override. They both agreed that they’re not yet there, but they expect to be by September. Supporters would of course like to end up with more than thirty-four votes so that it doesn’t look like they exhaustedly dragged a beat-up deal across the finish line.

The two figures to whom the most attention is being paid are Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Chuck Schumer, odds on the next Democratic leader in the Senate. Schumer has a history of taking a pro-Israeli government point of view, and his going against the administration on the Iran deal would probably present it with an uphill climb. Corker is in a difficult position: a Tennessean with finely chiseled features, he seemingly wants to play the part of the responsible statesman, following in the footsteps of, say, Richard Lugar, the former Republican Senator from Indiana who was an influential leader on foreign policy. But Corker is consigned to working within a party that is now far more conservative and partisan—and unforgiving of apostates—than it was in Lugar’s day. Some observers believe that Corker might not come out flatly for or against the deal, but might propose some legislative wording or maneuver that would make him not seem a knee-jerk partisan. It’s quite possible that both Corker and Schumer will leave their ultimate positions on the deal unknown for some time.

When great issues are before Congress and the country, public opinion can take big swings. This is why August could be a critical month for the Iran agreement. Because the negotiators didn’t finish before July 9, and because of its month-long recess, Congress has sixty days (instead of thirty) to decide on the deal. With Congress gone and the President usually on vacation for some of the time, August is supposedly a slow news period, which leaves ample room for coverage of local uprisings against members, which can then become contagious. The Clintons’ health care plan took a battering in August of 1994; the Tea Party revolt against President Obama’s health care plan boiled up in August of 2010, and while the plan survived, so did the Tea Party as a force.

To the extent that one can tell at this point, the political winds have been blowing, if softly and unseen, in the direction of those who support an agreement. The mood and tone on Capitol Hill have changed considerably from last winter, when backers of the nuclear negotiations had to mount a major fight to keep Congress from passing a new sanctions bill that would have sunk them. Then the talks went on so long—twenty-two months—that we got used to the spectacle of senior US officials sitting across the table from high-level Iranians. Or the two countries’ respective foreign ministers taking a walk together. This was a long way from George W. Bush’s putting Iran in the “axis of evil.” But the deal’s supporters are aware that opinion could swing back in the other direction.

As the negotiations went on, one of the opponents’ tactics was to say that Obama (or Kerry) “wants a deal too badly.” This got to the point where some talk show hosts and Republican pols described Obama as “desperate” for a deal. The Republicans are very good at the art of repetition: taking a talking point and saying it over and over and over again until it starts to pass as a fact. They’ve done so well with this that this spring my dentist told me in the strictest secrecy, off the record and all that, that his friend, a neocon Congressman, told him that Kerry wanted a deal too badly.

Another point made by several politicians and other opponents of the deal as soon as it was announced was that it would “put Iran on the path to getting a nuclear weapon.” The odd thing about using such rhetoric is that it’s so readily rebutted. Obviously, the absence of a deal would make it far easier for Iran to pursue a nuclear bomb, but that offsetting point hasn’t yet taken hold. The opponents’ problem is that, not unlike the situation on the health care act, they have no real real alternative. Opponents are reduced to arguing that through stronger sanctions and harder bargaining a “better deal” could be obtained. But that’s an assertion, not a fact. And the administration argues that even now it’s been all they could do to get our allies to keep the existing sanctions; some countries are eager to do business with Iran.

Supporters of the deal have planned various maneuvers to help push opinion further in their direction. The pro-peace, pro-Israel group J Street is arranging to bring to the US some former senior intelligence and military officials who have taken a position opposite to that of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu: these former officials have already stated that a nuclear deal with Iran wouldn’t jeopardize Israel’s safety, that in fact it would leave it stronger. Members of Congress who are understood to support the deal are being encouraged to spend time with a colleague they’re close to in order to influence his or her thinking about the deal. This is another way that opinion is moved along quietly in Washington. A significant grassroots effort is also underway; both sides can be expected to run television ads supporting their position.

The strongest organization opposed to the agreement, AIPAC, will be bringing its own Israeli witnesses to Washington. This group isn’t as all-powerful as it used to be, but it will likely have more funds than J Street. There will also be Sheldon Adelson’s bottomless donations aimed at killing the deal. And AIPAC’s real or implied threat to oppose the reelection of someone who supports the deal can still be effective. On the day the agreement was announced, AIPAC put out a release soberly promising careful study of the deal and taking no position. This seemed a wise approach. But the very next day it issued a statement that came down very hard in opposition to the deal. It must have been a turbulent twenty-four hours.

Both sides will also have their validators: people of sufficient standing whose word carries weight with those who are undecided. On the day the deal was announced, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Lawrence Wilkerson, who is a Republican, appeared on several television programs in support of it. “My party has made a decision to do everything they possibly can to damage the president, even at the expense of this country,” he said. (In one appearance, Wilkerson said, “Let me just be candid: My party is full of racists.” While many in Washington believe this, it’s rarely said aloud by respected figures.) The opponents have, among others, Henry Kissinger, though there’s a question of how influential he is among the younger generation of politicians. Opponents use Iran’s behavior in the Middle East—its support of Hamas and Hezbollah—as reason not to negotiate with it. The president argues that’s the very reason for doing so, that Iran would be a far greater threat if its meddling in the region were accompanied by a nuclear weapon. (However, supporters of the deal have contemplated the possibility that at a time Iran might engage in some new act that outrages the American public to allow its leaders to show that they haven’t sold out to the Western Devil, and opponents of the deal could exploit such an act as a reason not to “reward” it.)

That many of the opponents’ arguments don’t quite add up suggests their position is informed by some underlying, unspoken views. In fact there’s a longtime strain in the Republican Party that opposes negotiations with countries we don’t like. Republican presidents Nixon and Reagan were attacked from within their own party for negotiating with “the enemy”; Barack Obama, in his opening to Cuba and his deal with Iran, is taking on that view full-blast, as he said he would in his 2008 campaign. In the words of Dick Cheney, “We don’t negotiate with evil.” The term “Munich” is tossed around by some members of Congress who don’t know what happened there. Cheney and his neocon allies made sure that the US didn’t let the UN or respected international weapons inspectors get in the way of their drive for war with Saddam Hussein. If the inspectors found no weapons of mass destruction, that just showed how wily the Iraqis were.

One can detect in some of the statements of objectors to the deal a refusal to accept that the United States isn’t all-powerful and can’t get its way—by force if necessary—against any other country it opposes on an issue. The idea of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is so close to the surface of what many of the deal’s opponents say that it’s hard to ignore. Yet, quite apart from the side effects of such an attack, even if it were successful it would, according to various experts, only set back its nuclear program by one to three years. The negotiated deal would prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon for at least ten years. If during that time changes occur within Iran that make the country more reasonable to engage with, or even if the deal were to be the first step in Iran’s eventual joining of the community of nations, it would be all the more significant. But Obama has made it clear that he’s not counting on that.

We’re now so close to the fray and the din that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a historical moment. It’s on a scale of a decision to enter a war or make peace. It’s about the efficacy of negotiations versus military action. If the deal’s opponents succeed in cancelling it, they will have to answer to history. At a minimum, if the deal works, it postpones the day that Iran might have a nuclear weapon. Those who insist that the deal should have been more punitive toward Iran overlook the fact that it’s the result of a negotiation. Simple logic suggests that a man as obsessed with his place in history as Barack Obama wouldn’t consciously allow his negotiators to reach a deal that’s easily breached. He has said that he expects to be around when the deal has expired and he wants to be able to hold his head up. John Kerry also has his reputation at stake. But the atmosphere in Washington is now too perfervid to assume that logic will prevail.