- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Congressional opponents of President Obama’s tentative deal with Iran have hitherto offered a range of critiques that fall broadly in two baskets. But a new, third line of criticism is emerging — and it might prove the most powerful.
The first basket might be termed the “constitutional basket,” pointing out that an agreement of this magnitude is best thought of as a treaty, which would require formal Senate approval (and a high approval bar at that). The Obama administration counters that this is just an executive agreement, well within the scope of a president’s normal authority to conduct foreign policy. While the administration might welcome a strong vote of congressional approval, it insists it can act without congressional permission.
While Obama’s constitutional arguments are remarkably pliable — he was a fierce defender of senatorial prerogatives while a Senator and, when looking for political cover for inaction, has been willing to insist on a formal congressional role — his views generally fall within the precedents set by his predecessors. There may be political hay to be made in insisting on congressional prerogatives, but at the end of the day, this is fighting on the home-turf of the president and so I expect the administration to prevail here.
The second basket might be termed the “what about the other stuff basket,” pointing out all the ways the deal falls short on substantive merits. Here members of Congress have drawn attention to the way the administration have painted too rosy a picture of what the deal will bring about — in part by exaggerating the extent of Iranian compliance with previous deals, and in part by offering wishful thinking about how American concessions on the nuclear issue might catalyze a new era of strategic partnership with Iran on a range of regional issues.
Here the critics have a much stronger set of arguments. As my Shadow Gov’t wingman, Will Inboden, has argued, the Obama administration has been fairly tendentious in arguing the merits of the deal. The upsides are painted in bold, vivid colors; the alternatives treated as wildly irresponsible strawmen; and the downsides dismissed with vague references. The efforts by congressional critics to improve the deal, for instance by linking it to concrete reforms in the way Iran behaves in the region, are understandable.
Yet here again, I think a determined Obama administration can steam past the objections. Efforts like Senator Marco Rubio’s to condition the deal on Iran’s recognition of Israel dramatically underscore how wide is the gulf between the reality of where Iran’s behavior is today and the aspirations of the most ardent doves about where the nuclear deal could take us. But at the end of the day, if there really was a good nuclear deal that made a concrete resolution of that one issue, it would be worth having even if it left unresolved a host of other issues.
Sen. Rubio has recently proposed yet another line of critique, and I wonder if this third basket could prove the administration’s undoing: insisting that the eventual deal stick to the particulars the Obama administration outlined in the famous “State Department factsheet.” The Achilles heel of the Obama administration’s Iran policy may very well be that the administration has already publicly described a deal that is better than the actual deal they will get by the end of June.
This flaw was evident from the very start. What the Obama administration outlined in the State Department fact sheet was not a final deal, but rather more like the latest in a series of serious offers from the administration, but one that had elicited an especially hopeful response from the Iranian negotiators. Within hours of celebrating the release of the State Department fact sheet, key Iranian leaders were challenging various terms and conditions. And what the Iranians left unchallenged, other experts raised serious doubts about, especially the plausibility of “snap back” sanctions.
In all likelihood, unless the administration does a better job of preparing for alternative outcomes, the Iranians will insist that the Obama administration sweeten the terms a bit before signing on the dotted line — and Obama, because he has said there is no viable alternative to signing a deal, will be forced to make additional compromises.
Which is where the latest Rubio “poison pill” comes in. Senator Rubio’s measure does not demand that Obama sweeten the deal beyond what Obama has already described as the “best deal possible.” Rather, it demands that Obama deliver precisely on what he has already described as “his deal.” The administration could have a much harder time retreating from deal it has already boasted about so publicly.
Hoisting President Obama on his own petard in this way could well prove to be the most effective line of critique. Even if it does not ultimately derail the administration, it underscores how far the administration is prepared to go in order to secure what White House handlers believe will be a major foreign policy legacy for the president.
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