- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Secretary of State John Kerry is now in Geneva, no doubt invigorated from his diplomatic triumph at the Israel-Palestine "peace" talks (not). He wouldn’t be headed there if there wasn’t some tangible progress to report (and take some credit for). The reported deal is straightforward: Iran will halt its nuclear program for six months in exchange for the U.S. lifting a few minor sanctions.
This is a small first step. Its main purpose is building confidence, and buying time for the negotiators to work on a comprehensive permanent deal. Not surprisingly, opponents of an agreement are already working to derail it, by trashing any short-term deal in Geneva or by sponsoring new sanctions legislation designed to poison the atmosphere, discredit the diplomatic approach, and ultimately scuttle any deal.
The battle lines on this issue are now easy to identify. On one side are Obama and Kerry, the U.S. negotiating team, most of the arms control community, and much of America’s national security apparatus, including seventy-nine well-connected former officials who endorsed the administration’s efforts yesterday. This broad group understands that Iran is not going to accept zero enrichment and that the United States cannot physically prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon if it really, really, wants to get one. Even if the US used force to damage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, they could rebuild it and disperse it and we would have to keep attacking them forever. This group believes — correctly, in my view — that Iran is not currently trying to build a nuclear weapon and that a deal can be struck that makes it hard for Iran to sprint toward a bomb if it ever changes its mind. This group recognizes that another Mideast war would be a disaster for us and for others and would merely increase Iran’s desire to acquire an effective deterrent. Finally, this group understands that the deal is likely to get worse the longer we delay.
On the other side are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who has already denounced the interim deal), Saudi Arabia, the hardline elements within the Israel lobby, extremist journalists like Jennifer Rubin, and various Congresspersons who are overly beholden to some or all of the above. Despite a dearth of genuine evidence, they believe Iran is hell-bent on getting a bomb and that this development would have far-reaching negative effects on world politics. They think Iran is only negotiating now because we tightened sanctions, and that tightening the screws some more will get Tehran to say "uncle" and give us everything we want. Perhaps they haven’t noticed that the United States could have gotten a better deal in 2006 — before the latest round of sanctions was imposed — but the Bush administration foolishly spurned Iran’s offer. The opponents have a lot of energy and fervor on their side, but logic and evidence doesn’t seem to be their strong suit.
Which side will win? I don’t know, but I do think this is a winnable fight for Obama if he tries. If the negotiators in Geneva can reach an agreement that 1) avoids war, 2) reduces Iran’s incentive for a bomb, 3) moves them further from the nuclear threshold, and 4) strengthens the already-tough inspections regime, and presents it to the American people as a done deal, I think the public will support it strongly. The administration will have no trouble trotting out lots of former officials and bemedaled generals to endorse it, and to explain to skeptics or the undecided why the deal is in our interest. The rest of the P5+1 will be ecstatic (except maybe Russia and China, because they benefit from the United States and Iran being at odds), and they will be making supportive noises as well. Hardline opponents won’t be able to attack the deal without engaging in transparently obvious special pleading, partly on behalf of a country that already has nuclear weapons and hasn’t been all that cooperative lately. Under these circumstances, some of those diehard opponents in Congress might think twice about killing the deal, because their fingerprints would be all over the murder weapon. Indeed, that may be why they are now proposing new sanctions: better to kill the diplomatic process before it produces results than to try to discredit a reasonable deal later on.
Obama hasn’t wracked up a lot of foreign policy successes thus far, and there aren’t a lot of promising opportunities elsewhere. The Affordable Care Act snafu has him in the doldrums here at home and he could use a big-ticket breakthrough somewhere. Bottom line: he should go for it. I mean, what’s the point of being president if you aren’t going to lead?