Inflection points in the history of U.S. foreign relations sometimes are marked by new departures and new roads taken. But they might instead entail blown opportunities to take new and better roads, with significant damage resulting from the failure to take them. That failure involves opportunity costs at a minimum, and other costs as well. We may be getting close to the latter type of inflection point, with significant danger that opponents of any agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program will succeed in wrecking the deal.
As of this writing the greatest chance of wrecking it appears to involve not what is going on at the negotiating tables in Europe but instead what the U.S. Congress may do back in Washington to sabotage the work of the diplomats. The energy for the Congressional wrecking ball comes, as it always has, from three sources.
One is a general need for a foreign enemy and a habit of viewing America's role as one of militant and uncompromising confrontation with that enemy. This habit and felt need have roots in some broader American attitudes, although they are manifested most starkly in neoconservatism. Iran has been filling this role of needed enemy for some time.
A second is the strong opposition of the right-wing Israel government—with everything that customarily implies regarding American politics—to anyone making any agreement with Iran. This opposition serves the Israeli government's purposes of fixing blame for regional problems firmly on someone else, of positing opposition to such an enemy as supposedly a basis for U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation, and of diverting international attention from problems directly involving Israel itself.
The third driver, which has become especially relevant the more that the Iran negotiations have become a prominent effort in Barack Obama's foreign policy, is the determination of much of the Republican opposition to oppose anything that Mr. Obama favors and to deny him any achievements. The heightened acrimony over the issue of immigration has made this even more of a factor than before, if that is possible. Amid talk about government shutdowns and freezing of all appointment confirmations, trashing of a diplomatic agreement with Iran would be done while barely batting an eyelash.
If the deal-wreckers succeed, we will have a negative turning point in U.S. foreign relations because the opportunity for any kind of nuclear deal with Iran will be lost for an indefinite future. The conditions that made it possible for the two sides to get as close to agreement as they now would quickly unravel in multiple ways. The Iranian president would in effect become a lame duck, the influence of hardliners in Iran would rise, and credibility that had been built up during the negotiations would dissipate. The alternative to whatever deal emerges from the current negotiations would be no deal at all.
Having an agreement emerge during a lame duck Congress was supposed to be the most sabotage-resistant timing, and it probably is. But expectations now are that what will most likely be announced this month is not a complete agreement but rather some version of an extension of the previous interim deal and a partial agreement with additional details yet to be negotiated. This situation unfortunately will be an invitation to those wielding the wrecking ball to do serious damage after the new Congress convenes. They probably will take multiple whacks with the ball. There is, for example, a bill sponsored by the incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, that is designed to get a hasty vote of disapproval of the agreement before anyone would have much chance to study it. There also would be a push (most fervently from Senator Mark Kirk) to impose more sanctions, which would violate the interim agreements and provide cause for the Iranians to walk away from the table. The fact that keeping the terms of the current interim agreement in effect would achieve the presumed goal of freezing or rolling back the Iranian nuclear program would do little to slow down the deal-wreckers.
Blowing the opportunity for an agreement would be all the more a shame because, according to the preeminent criterion of preventing any Iranian nuclear weapon (not to mention other consequences of an agreement), the choice between a deal and no deal is almost a no-brainer. No deal would mean fewer restrictions on the Iranian program and lesser inspection and monitoring of it. Iran would have a much clearer path to a nuclear weapon, if it chose to take it, without an agreement than with one.
We are approaching a critical point in U.S. foreign relations. It is gut-check time especially for Democrats who have to decide whether they are going to take the responsible position for the sake of U.S. interests in the Middle East or instead be tempted into being part of a veto-proof Iran-bashing, “pro-Israel” majority. Perhaps taking the responsible route will be made a bit easier by seeing how the opposition to an agreement has become increasingly and blatantly partisan, as illustrated by a hard-line letter initiated this week by Kirk and Marco Rubio that got signatures from 43 Republican senators but not a single Democrat.