Politics versus Policy: Follow-up to the Iran Nuclear Agreement
The Obama administration had to expend considerable political capital in fending off attempts, during the recent Congressional review period, to kill the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program. As a matter of policy toward that program, such expenditure should never have been necessary; the strict limitations and scrutiny of the program that are embodied in the agreement are clearly better for U.S. interests than the absence of such limitations and scrutiny if the agreement had been killed. But the expenditure was required to beat back opposition to the agreement that was rooted not in any consideration of the merits of the agreement itself but instead in other reasons that opponents had to oppose the administration and to keep Iran isolated. It is not surprising, given how domestic politics tends to work, that since the agreement survived last month's Congressional gauntlet we have been seeing a sort of rebalancing of political accounts in which the forces opposing the agreement are being propitiated in other respects. Although the propitiation is understandable in terms of domestic politics, it is damaging U.S. foreign policy interests. It undermines the prospects for constructively building on the agreement to advance other U.S. interests in the Middle East, and it may even imperil the nuclear agreement itself.
The political rebalancing is manifested in an amplification of hostility toward, and threats against, Iran. All the negative things that were said about Iran in the course of earlier debate on the nuclear agreement are being said, across the political spectrum and across the different branches of government as well as in public discourse, with as much loudness as they were before. All the required mantras about the need to oppose the “nefarious” things that Iran supposedly is doing in its region are being recited as automatically as they were before. Every opportunity is taken to kick Iran in the shins verbally and to disavow any possibility of American friendship with it. These themes are apparent not only in the general rhetoric in Washington but also in draft legislation. This includes Senator Ben Cardin's bill for an “Iran Policy Oversight Act,” which includes almost nothing about building positively on the agreement but instead is mostly about expressing hostility and making threats, including the threat of reimposing sanctions on Iran.
None of this makes any sense if one goes beyond domestic American politics and considers what the agreement has or has not changed. It makes no sense as a response to a diplomatic accord in which Iran has committed itself to keep its nuclear program peaceful and has backed up that commitment by subjecting itself to unprecedented monitoring of, and limitations on, the program. The negativity would make much more sense if the Iranian behavior had been the opposite of what it really was—that is, if Tehran had walked away from the negotiations and, amid more threat-making of its own, had resumed expansion of an unrestricted nuclear program.
The negativity-infused political rebalancing jeopardizes the prospects for the United States advancing its interests in the Middle East through a more complete and unfettered diplomacy on several important issues in which Iran also has an interest. The security situations in, and political futures of, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan top the list of those issues, but there are other important topics as well, including broader questions of security in the Persian Gulf region. Building on the nuclear agreement means taking advantage of the ice-breaking effect of the nuclear negotiations, which moved away from a situation in which U.S. and Iranian officials were not even talking to each other, to conduct effective and mutually beneficial business on these other matters.
Notwithstanding earlier anti-agreement rhetoric to the effect that we should not expect Iran to become nice because of the nuclear accord, what is involved is not niceness. What is involved is Iran acting on behalf of its own interests—some of which parallel U.S. interests and some of which diverge from U.S. interests on each of the issues just mentioned. That is the sort of non-zero-sum situation that is the stuff of the normal give-and-take in normal diplomacy. And for the United States, building on the diplomatic breakthrough of the nuclear accord is less a matter of unshackling Iranian diplomacy than of unshackling its own diplomacy, and of availing itself of a full box of tools for pursuing its interests in the Middle East.
The amplified negativity and animosity toward Iran that emanate from the U.S. domestic political pot not only threaten to get in the way of a broader and more effective U.S. diplomacy in the region but also takes no account of the fact that the Iranians have domestic politics as well. The hostile vibes from Washington weaken the position of President Rouhani and those who are inclined to be part of a more constructive regional diplomacy, and play into the hands of unreconstructed hardliners who would be more content with Iran remaining an isolated rogue. The political dynamics involved, of hostility begetting more hostility and of hardliners in each capital helping the other's cause, are a threat not only to effective diplomacy on other topics but also to the nuclear agreement itself. Iranian hardliners who never liked the agreement will be eager to seize on anything that enables them to argue that all of Iran's concessions bought it nothing but endless enmity from the United States.