Paul Pillar

Failing to Check Facts That Matter About Policy Toward Iran

Glenn Kessler's “Fact Checker” feature in the Washington Post performs a mostly useful service. With as many falsehoods as are customarily flying around in American political discourse, goodness knows we need as much journalistic calling to account of such dishonesty as we can get. Kessler's performance of this function often is deficient, however, in two respects. One is the arbitrary and unrepresentative way in which he seems to select statements to pounce upon; flagrant, serial misrepresentation doesn't get featured any more than statements that can be considered untrue only as a matter of nitpicking. The other is that he sometimes goes beyond the checking of facts and renders evaluations that are more a matter of policy or political judgment.

Earlier this week Kessler took President Obama and his speech-writers to task for a line in the president's West Point speech last month that referred to how against the background of an advancing Iranian nuclear program, the administration had since its beginning implemented a program of sanctions while “extending the hand of diplomacy” to the Iranians. Kessler thinks this was an unfair statement because starting in 2006 the George W. Bush administration was pushing anti-Iran sanctions at the United Nations Security Council while signing on with the Europeans to the concept of eventually negotiating a resolution of the Iranian nuclear question. Kessler gives the statement “Three Pinocchios,” which certainly is unwarranted in at least two respects. One is that the statement in the president's speech was not untrue; Kessler just doesn't think it was sufficiently fair politically to his predecessor. The other is that if Kessler is going to venture beyond fact-checking into judgments about policies toward Iran, he has missed completely the most important dimensions of what has transpired over the last several years.

Even after the Bush administration made its “major shift” (Kessler's words) in 2006, it continued to eschew direct dealings with Iran as if Iranian diplomats had cooties. That is a far cry from the engagement that the Obama administration has practiced, which included the direct involvement of the secretary of state in negotiation of the preliminary nuclear agreement last fall, and this week has had Deputy Secretary of State William Burns leading a U.S. team negotiating with the Iranians in Geneva. Observers of the nuclear negotiations nearly all agree that the most critical deal-making has to occur bilaterally between the United States and Iran.

Kessler erroneously assumes that working toward a nuclear agreement has been a constant progression in which events and policies of a few years ago built a foundation for the diplomacy of today. It has not been that. The story has instead been more one of opportunities either seized or missed, and of some events and decisions having hampered rather than helped today's diplomacy.

An early missed opportunity came in late 2001 and early 2002, when effective cooperation between U.S. and Iranian diplomats regarding Afghanistan could have grown into something bigger—until the Bush administration slammed a door in the Iranians' face by declaring the Axis of Evil. Another opportunity came in 2003, when Iran offered a bargain that would not only have addressed the nuclear issue (at a time when Iran had fewer than 200 uranium centrifuges, compared with 19,000 now) but also other concerns such as Iran's relationship with Hezbollah and posture toward Israel. But the Bush administration, around the time it was declaring mission accomplished in Iraq, wanted no dealings with Iran at all. Yet another missed opportunity was in 2005, when Hassan Rouhani, then Iran's nuclear negotiator, offered to the Europeans to freeze Iran's centrifuges at their level then of 3,000. The Bush administration, which refused even to sit at the multilateral negotiating table, made it known it would accept nothing other than zero.

Kessler makes no mention of the entire Iranian side of the political equation and how that has affected the coming and going of opportunities for the United States. The reformist Mohammad Khatami was president of Iran during the missed opportunities of the first five years of the Bush administration. Then came eight years of the love-to-hate President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. When Rouhani was elected president in a surprising first-round victory and succeeded Ahmadinejad last September, Obama's seizing of this new opportunity made it possible to meet Rouhani's goal of negotiating a preliminary nuclear agreement in his first 100 days in office.

Incredibly, Kessler describes U.S. policy toward Iran as “a model of bipartisan cooperation.” Paul Glastris at the Washington Monthly shows how ridiculous that characterization is. Much Republican opposition to the administration's Iran policy has come to resemble, as with the obsessive opposition to Obamacare, an effort to undermine whatever would be a significant achievement for the president. The resulting partisan pattern has been reflected, for example, in support for a deal-busting sanctions bill, S. 1881, that would violate the preliminary nuclear agreement and was beaten back, at least for the time being, with the help of an explicit presidential veto threat. All but two Senate Republicans (Rand Paul and Jeff Flake) became co-sponsors of the bill; only 17 of the 60 co-sponsors are Democrats.