Paul Pillar

The Iran Deal Meets Obamacare

The completion of technical talks to implement the Joint Plan of Action negotiated by Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States) underscores the falsity of assertions that legislation imposing still more sanctions is somehow needed to keep the Iranians negotiating seriously. The technical talks actually were successfully completed more quickly than some Western officials had expected. Completion means all the T's have been crossed and I's have been dotted on the Joint Plan of Action, a preliminary agreement that freezes or reverses the components of Iran's nuclear program that otherwise would have been most worrisome concerning possible application toward the making of nuclear weapons. In return the P5+1 is providing only minimal relief from sanctions, with the main sanctions regarding banking and oil exports remaining in place.

With this development it should be all the more clear that the current bill introduced by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez—which, in providing for still more sanctions, also threatens war and imposes unmeetable demands for a final agreement with Iran—is all about torpedoing the negotiations, not facilitating them. The prime promoters of the bill are interests that want no agreement with Iran and instead want to maintain permanent hostility toward it and unending isolation of it. But as Kirk and Menendez have enlisted additional co-sponsors an additional dimension has emerged. Nearly all of the senators who have more recently signed on to the bill are Republicans. The current 59 co-sponsors include all but two (Rand Paul and Jeff Flake) of the Republicans in the Senate but only 16 of the 55 Democrats and independents.

Partisan division on legislation of any sort is not news, of course, but it does mark a departure in the campaign to sink negotiations with Iran. The most conspicuous and energetic element in this effort—AIPAC—generally tries to present itself as an equal opportunity lobby. Although it obviously welcomes each additional Republican co-sponsor, it probably is less than happy with the prominent partisan divide, because it will need to enlist additional Democrats to accomplish its objective of killing any deal with Iran.

The increased partisan coloration of this contest will mean more members casting votes for reasons that are even farther removed than they otherwise would have been from careful consideration of what is in U.S. interests. As on so many other issues, party solidarity and party competition may take preference over what is good for the republic. Many members will support something like the Kirk-Menendez bill as they see most of their colleagues on the same side of the aisle supporting it, while not bothering to notice how it nourishes the very hardline tendencies in Tehran that supposedly everyone would like to see diminished. Nor is much attention likely to be paid to the numerous specific faults in the bill that will mean undermining rather than furthering a negotiated agreement. Edward Levine, a respected longtime staff member with the Senate intelligence and foreign relations committees, has provided an analysis of some of these faults for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

Even worse, an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program may become the foreign policy equivalent of Obamacare: a measure that Republicans oppose in order to remove from the political scorecard what threatens to count as a major achievement for the Democratic president. If a final deal along the lines outlined by the Joint Plan of Action is achieved, it probably will indeed be perceived, once Mr. Obama reaches the end of his term, as one of the most significant foreign policy accomplishments of his presidency. To carry the comparison with Obamacare ever further, a destructive response can include not only opposition up front to try to prevent enactment in the first place but also, after enactment—or in this case, after the signing of a final agreement with Iran—continuing efforts to keep the law or the agreement from working. In the case of the Iranian nuclear program, some of this sort of after-the-fact sabotage is foreshadowed by provisions in the Kirk-Menendez bill that Levine examines.