Getting it Right Once Again on Iran Deal

I don’t think my analysis of the politics driving the Iran nuclear negotiations could be any more on the money. No sooner had I finished my last piece—in which I pointed out that opponents of the agreement were really after a postponement so another administration could make the deal–than Senator Lindsey Graham advocated a delay, saying we need to wait until the next president to deliver this deal because President Obama is somehow too weak and the Iranians “don’t fear nor do they respect him.” “Is there a better deal to be had? I think so,” Graham opined, adding “What I would suggest is if you can’t get there with this deal is to keep the interim deal in place, allow a new president in 2017, Democrat or Republican, to take a crack at the Iranian nuclear program.” While Graham says he doesn’t care if it’s a Democratic president handling Iran you can be sure he’d prefer a Republican be the one who gets the credit for this historic achievement and, as a presidential aspirant himself, he’d relish it all the more actually being that Republican.

Then there’s the assertion I made (also in my last piece) that the Israeli government wants a Republican administration to negotiate the deal because it’s guaranteed the U.S. won’t be re-balancing to East Asia under the GOP’s watch. They won’t “abandon the Middle East” as Senator Bob Corker is convinced Obama’s foreign policy doctrine seeks to do:

“It’s become very evident as to what the administration is doing relative to the Middle East,” Corker said. “The administration’s view is that in order to extract ourselves in the Middle East, we need to move away from our relationship from Israel and we need to more fully align ourselves with Iran, so we create this balance in the Middle East between Iran and its influence and the Arab Sunni influence in the region.” He added: “That seems to be our strategy. And that’s what’s creating all of this turmoil in the region.” According to Corker, the Iran deal is the lynchpin of Obama’s drive to change the balance of power in Iran’s favor and then remove America’s role from the region. But he said Obama’s plan was fatally flawed because Iran has no intention of reforming. “The P5+1 discussions are central to that,” Corker said. “The problem with that today, the fact is, Iran hasn’t changed its behavior. That’s why you see so much of what’s happening in the Middle East.”

With his op-ed, Corker is making it clear to our Middle East allies that if the Republicans are the ones at the table, they won’t be using the deal as a stepping stone out of the region.

Yet another reason why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is longing for a party switch in the oval office is so Israel can finally get out from under Obama’s thumb when it comes to peace with the Palestinians. A couple years ago, I explained how both Obama and Netanyahu created linkages between the Iran nuclear issue and the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to try to geopolitically one-up the other and now Israeli journalist Dimi Reider has concluded that this is indeed the dynamic at play:

“Still, even if he were forced to publicly accept the premise of a deal, Netanyahu could retain his hawkish image by appointing himself the watchdog for Iranian violations of the deal and by trying to prove the deal doesn’t work, rather than that it should not have happened in the first place. In return for such quasi-compliance, Netanyahu might expect the United States not to press Israel too hard on the Palestinian issue—to launch, perhaps, another negotiating effort but to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to Israel’s back in the U.N. and to defend it at more menacing forums, like the International Criminal Court. This would also hardly break new ground. Looking back on the past few years, the Iran issue seems to have been used more as a bargaining chip than treated as an imminent geopolitical threat, especially during the abortive negotiation attempt by Secretary of State John Kerry. Netanyahu did not actually budge on any aspect of the peace process, and he continued settlement expansion at a remarkably rapid pace. But he was mollified enough by the lack of strong American pressure, and distracted enough by the moderates and nationalists in his coalition bickering over the peace talks, to keep relatively quiet on Iran.”

And Netanyahu ended up being outmaneuvered—Obama was able to use the Palestinian issue to make sure the Iran deal passes but Bibi can derive some benefit from it yet. But how would linkage continue to apply post-deal? Well, you just read above how part of Netanyahu’s climbdown will be him assuming the self-appointed role of watcher of possible violations. Assuming the Obama administration persists in cracking down on Israel to make peace with the Palestinians (the White House will likely drop the whole thing since Netanyahu has halted his obstructionism), you can expect Netanyahu will immediately claim Iran is cheating in some highly debatable way, escalate things to the point where they threaten the accord, and Obama is forced to back down. But he’d only have to do this dance until a Republican wins the presidency and proceeds to abandon Obama’s linkage strategy.

So, to recap, I was correct about the motivations of the Republicans and Israelis for wanting to press pause on the negotiations and about the larger linkage tug-of-war between Obama and Netanyahu. In the teasing words of Ace Ventura to Police Lieutenant Einhorn/Finkle after he put the pieces together in the case of the Miami Dolphins’ missing mascot and kidnapped quarterback, “Man, I’m tired of being right!”

Iran Deal As Good As It Gets

It’s not a belated April Fool’s Day prank–Iran and the P5+1 really did manage to hammer out the parameters for a comprehensive agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. To see to it that Congress doesn’t screw up this momentous diplomatic achievement, the president is suiting up to defend what he deemed a “historic understanding” from hawkish lawmakers. “The administration is planning an aggressive public effort,” reports Politico, “to explain and defend the Iran framework—including a tough assessment of the alternatives—that President Barack Obama vowed on Thursday that he’d lead himself.” Obama will play the ace he last used when Congress threatened more sanctions on Iran after the interim agreement was first signed and bluntly state that if this deal is not accepted the only other option for the United States is war with Iran. Republicans will scramble to prevent Democrats (who will then come under the same pressure from the public that stopped a U.S. strike on Syria) from defecting to the president’s side and will emphasize, truthfully, that they don’t want war either but a better deal.

A former foreign policy adviser to a 2012 Republican presidential candidate told Michael Crowley that Republicans will argue that Obama’s “pliant strategy completely failed to secure a strong agreement.” But this stronger agreement that Republicans and other deal skeptics are placing their hopes in is a mirage, as Jeffrey Lewis explains:

“So let me say this as clearly as I possibly can: A Republican administration, if given a chance, would negotiate exactly the same agreement that this administration is negotiating, with all its flaws and shortcomings. Republicans partisans are convinced they are tougher than Democrats, just as Democratic partisans believe they are more respected in the world. Each party thinks it could get a better deal than the other. This is just Meet the Press nonsense. The outlines of any deal with Iran are largely determined by the relative power of the parties—how advanced Iran’s nuclear programs are, what U.S. military options look like, the vitality of the sanctions regime, etc.—not the personal qualities of the presidents we elect. You can believe that George W. Bush’s flinty gaze would have stared down Hassan Rouhani or that Ali Khameini will understand that Barack Obama is a transformational figure of historic importance. You can believe those things, but you’d be an idiot”

Lewis couldn’t be more right and the “relative power of the parties” unquestionably favors Iran. The U.S. has no leverage whatsoever because there’s no effective military option—that is, none that wouldn’t lead to a world war–and any more sanctions, as David Crist writes, “will be viewed by Iran as an act of war and Tehran will respond accordingly.” Republicans surely grasp the reality of our stature in the negotiations and so the only reason they oppose the deal is not because it’s insufficiently stringent but because they aren’t the ones making it. They’re painfully aware that this accord, as the New York Times notes, has “the potential to become one of the most important American foreign policy achievements in decades” and the GOP doesn’t want Democrats to get the credit for it. It’s ironically like how for Iranian politicians rapprochement with the U.S. is a political football and one side doesn’t want the other to get the acclaim.

But how do we account for Israel’s actions? If the Israelis know, like Congress’s deal opponents, that this deal is as good as it gets, why go as far as they have in fighting it? Could it be they also want Republicans to be the ones conducting the Iran diplomacy? It would explain why Netanyahu wants to delay the progress of the talks (while extending the interim agreement so things don’t collapse completely) by having the Iranians walk away from the table for a time. It’s not because he hopes they will come back chastened and willing to cave in to a mythical better deal but because he’s hoping when they return they will be talking with a Republican administration instead of a Democratic one. Why does Netanyahu prefer that the GOP be at the helm for this deal? Because, after it’s enacted, Israel will be able to count on them to continue the U.S.’s military involvement in the region whereas Democrats would still be raring to start the Pacific Pivot and—since the Democratic base is turning away from Israel’s policies–more likely to twist Israel’s arm to make peace with the Palestinians.