For those who are willing to take an impartial and unbiased look at the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action signed between P5+1 and Iranian negotiators on April 2, there is a lot to be happy about.
Whether it’s the two-thirds reduction in Tehran’s centrifuge stockpile (under the deal, 20,000 machines will go down to approximately 6,000), the rigorous verification and inspection regime that will ensure that Iran is meeting its commitments, or the cap on the amount of low-enriched uranium that Iran is allowed to keep in-country, it’s difficult to argue that Washington and its partners didn’t receive the bulk of the concessions.
Yet, with that being said, there is an incredible amount of skepticism in Washington about what the Obama administration has achieved in this agreement.
Zalmay Khalilzad laid out a convincing case on this website about the shortcomings of the accord agreed to last week, and TNI’s own John Allen Gay makes a compelling point that the sanctions relief issue—which is the only enticement that kept Iranian negotiators at the table in the first place—is muddled and confusing.
The CJPOA may have the word “comprehensive” in its title, but there are still plenty of open questions and specific issues that Iran and the P5+1 coalition need to address before the final, June 30 deadline: how will the IAEA verify Iranian compliance; how quickly will the United States and EU provide Tehran with an estimated $120 billion of its own money; what is this “dispute resolution process” about; and how can the IAEA be sure that Tehran is not creating an underground, covert uranium enrichment facility?
These are all legitimate and reasonable questions to ask. Each and every one must be answered in a convincing and compelling way by President Obama and his national security staff if they are to mitigate the deeply-held concerns that so many members of Congress have towards this agreement.
Simply reverting to the binary choice between striking a diplomatic accord with Iran and unleashing another U.S.-led war in the Middle East—an argument that President Obama has used all too often in the past, surely with the legacy of Iraq in mind—will rub a lot of people the wrong way and could give Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill the impression that the administration simply doesn’t take their concerns seriously.
According to Politico, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes—who has been with Obama since the very beginning of his presidency—is being tasked with coordinating the administration’s campaign of selling the CJPOA to Congress and the American people. Luckily for him, Congress is not in session for another week, so the White House will have an opportunity to mold the debate inside the United States without having to deal with rebuttals on the House and Senate floors.
But it would be the height of folly for the White House to sit back and not use the next week as an opportunity to press the administration’s case as to why the agreement is the best option to ensure that Tehran is not permitted to acquire the resources and capability to attain a nuclear weapon. In his long-ranging interview with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, Obama has began to lay the groundwork for this lobbying push, going beyond bashing his critics as fools and war-mongers.
Far be it from me to lecture the White House on what they need to do. I have no experience with public relations whatsoever, but there are some ideas—most obvious, others not—that the National Security Council, Ben Rhodes, and the White House communications team could use to buttress their job of selling this agreement to the Congress and the American public.
· Make Senior Administration Officials Available: No offense to officials at the deputies’ committee level and below, but the administration needs to push their senior, top-level people to the forefront, because ultimately they are the ones who call the shots across the various agencies and departments of the U.S. government. President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey must all be made available to senior members of Congress and responsive to their queries.
Some of the people on this list have already engaged with the chairmen and ranking members of the national security committees, as well as the congressional leadership, which is an appropriate first step. But the interaction cannot be a one-time occurrence, nor can it be seen by Republicans and Democrats alike that the administration views this type of thing as a chore rather than a responsibility.
· Make Use of the Media: The Sunday morning shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation are still a big deal in America, particularly among those who reside within the DC metro area. The White House knows this full well, so it’s a little puzzling why only one senior administration official — Energy Secretary Moniz on CBS’s Face the Nation — was on television explaining why the CJPOA was “a good deal.”
That is completely inadequate for a president who regards a successful nuclear agreement with Iran as his best chance for a foreign policy legacy. No president can rely upon sympathetic members of Congress or surrogates outside of the executive branch on these shows: if they want to press their arguments, they need to do it themselves.
· Be Open to Action from Congress: President Obama has been on record opposing two bills that would cause him some serious pain during the next three months of P5+1-Iran negotiations.
One, from Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez, would levy new economic sanctions on the Iranians if a final CJPOA isn’t signed by June 30. The second, and far more bipartisan approach, is Senator Corker’s “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act,” legislation that gives Congress a role in reviewing and voting on an agreement.
If the administration was smart, they would approach Chairman Corker and Ben Cardin, the new acting ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, with a compromise solution: in exchange for dropping some of the most objectionable clauses in the bill (allowing Congress to approve or disapprove of the agreement and forbidding the administration from granting sanctions relief to the Iranians for the 60-day congressional review period), the White House could support legislation requiring a certification to Congress on Iran’s compliance every 60 days and an expedited process whereby Congress can impose new sanctions if a certification cannot be met. This would be similar to Barbara Boxer’s own legislation, but at a quicker pace.
· Take Congress Seriously Over the Next 21 Months: By consulting with Congress more regularly on all other matters of U.S. foreign policy over the remainder of his tenure, the president may be able to chip away at some of the tension that has all but ruined the relationship between the executive and legislative branches.
One of the reasons why Obama is so vilified by congressional Republicans is because the president is depicted (rightly or wrongly) as a man who compares working with a politically divisive legislature as akin to herding cats. Republicans are convinced that the president doesn’t take the time to hear their concerns, simply dismissing them as partisan. Change that, and there’s an opening (however small) that the CJPOA won’t be such a political football.
Over the next two to three weeks, we will all see how and to what extent the White House pushes its narrative supporting an Iranian nuclear agreement that was more detailed than many (including myself) would have predicted. The more innovative the White House is, the easier it will be for President Obama to achieve the major foreign policy success he’s looking for.
Daniel DePetris is an analyst at Wikistrat Inc., and a contributor to the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.