Paul Pillar

Campaign Carnage and the Iran Nuclear Agreement

Among the lingering effects of this awful election campaign season will be widespread misunderstanding of serious issues of foreign policy, beyond even the habitually low baseline public understanding of many such issues. With Donald Trump making clear in the second presidential candidates' debate that his approach for the remaining four weeks of the campaign will be to sustain a barrage of accusations and assertions in which the quantity of accusations is given greater emphasis than their correspondence with reality, there will be both more material for misunderstandings and less time and space for correcting them. In the debate, the sheer volume of misrepresentations meant Hillary Clinton was again reduced to referring people to her website for fact-checking—and even then the proportion of the debate devoted to serious discussion of public policy, foreign or domestic, was distressingly small.

The problem is not just one of specific erroneous assertions of the type that a fact-checker can grab hold of. It is a broader problem of misrepresentation that consists of context, innuendo, and omission as much as bald-faced lies. Effects in the minds of the public will outlast the election regardless of the election result. Many citizens—including perhaps some of those suburban women in Pennsylvania who seem to have become a fashionable political bellwether—who decide they do not want a misogynist (or worse) in the White House and vote accordingly will still have lasting misperceptions, or will have existing misperceptions reinforced, on some issues partly because of things Donald Trump has said during the campaign.

Consider, as one such important foreign policy topic, the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. This is an instance of reinforcement of earlier misrepresentation, because there has been much said over the past couple of years with the objective of killing the agreement, even before Trump started his campaign. For the Republican Party as a whole, the nuclear agreement has a place in foreign policy that corresponds to the Affordable Care Act in domestic policy: i.e., a signature accomplishment of Barack Obama's administration, and thus something Republicans have been determined to destroy. (This is in addition to the strong political effects in the United States of the rightist government in Israel opposing, for other reasons, any business done with Iran.) Thus what could have been a useful election season discussion of the best ways to advance U.S. interests while following up on the nuclear agreement has not taken place.

Even the fact-checkers who presumably try to be objective have not always done a good job in handling how candidates have mishandled the subject of the nuclear agreement. This was true of some of the fact-checking of the vice-presidential candidates' debate, in which fact-checkers sloppily conflated “nuclear program” with “nuclear weapons program”. Perhaps the fact-checking will be somewhat better regarding what was said on the topic in the latest presidential candidates' debate. ABC News, for example, is to be commended not only for picking up on Trump's misstatement about the size of sanctions relief that Iran has gotten but also for assessing that Trump's characterization of the agreement as “one-sided” was false “considering the changes Iran has made to its nuclear program, including an agreement to reduce its stockpile of enriched nuclear material and to cease further enrichment, effectively extending the time it would take Iran to build a bomb from a few months to one year.” (Many in Iran, disappointed that the economic benefits Iran has gotten seem small in return for the concessions it made, would say the transaction was one-sided in the other direction.)

There is more that a thorough auditing of what the candidates said on this subject in the debate would have highlighted. Trump referred to $1.7 billion in cash as if that payment were part of the nuclear agreement, whereas in fact it was part of a settlement of claims dating back to the time of the shah. He also used the reference in a way that probably fed the misconception that this was money from U.S. taxpayers when instead it was Iran's money all along. Trump also seemed to say that another consequence of the nuclear agreement was that “Iran and Russia are now against us”. That's a strange suggestion given that the work on the nuclear agreement exhibited some of the closest and most effective U.S.-Russian cooperation in recent years, and that Russia and Iran hardly needed any stimulus to be working on the same side in the Syrian civil war. If anything, a rejection of U.S. diplomacy with Iran would leave more of an open field to the Russians to do diplomatic and commercial business in the Middle East.

For the average American voter, what needs to be said about the nuclear agreement with Iran does not need to get into details of decades-old claims settlements, but it does need to offer a bit more than Clinton's one-sentence comment in the debate about putting “a lid on the Iranian nuclear program without firing a single shot.” The essential points that need to be made are these:

• For years before negotiations began, Iran was spinning more centrifuges and enriching more uranium and getting ever closer to the capability of making a nuclear weapon. This process continued even as the United States loaded more and more sanctions on Iran.

• The agreement stopped this process and has blocked all of Iran's paths toward making a nuclear weapon. This has included not only the enriched uranium path but also the plutonium path, blocked with measures such as gutting a reactor.