The White House is already waging an all-out PR war as it prepares to bring a potential nuclear deal back to Washington.
It might be too much to say that President Barack Obama’s administration went nuclear last month on a New York Times story suggesting that Iran was reneging on a tentative deal to freeze its uranium enrichment program. But the June 3 report was, at the least, roundly blasted by the State Department’s top spokeswoman on the Iran negotiations, Marie Harf.
“I will say our team read that story this morning and was, quite frankly, perplexed, because the main contentions of it are just totally inaccurate,” Harf said in a televised press briefing later that day from the State Department. She further piled on against the story in a series of scathing tweets and, even now, is unapologetic about her combative tone.
The rapid-fire attacks convey the high stakes riding on the nuclear talks and the White House’s hair-trigger sensitivity over any suggestion that it is caving into Iranian negotiators.
And with the Vienna talks entering a delicate stage in the run-up to a July 7 deadline, Obama administration officials are preparing for a final round in the public relations battle to sell the accord to Americans back home and to a deeply divided Congress.
On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said while negotiators “have in fact made genuine progress,” a final deal remained elusive and talks would continue into the week. “We are not yet where we need to be on several of the most difficult issues,” Kerry told reporters in Vienna. “…This negotiation could go either way. If hard choices get made in the next couple of days and made quickly, we could get an agreement this week. But if they are not made, we will not.”
Critics of the negotiations have engaged in an equally aggressive PR effort that often resembles a no-holds-barred political campaign, with daily talking points circulated and surrogates taking to the airwaves. Conservative commentators routinely compare U.S. diplomacy with Iran to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain giving in to Adolf Hitler’s demands in Munich.
James Jeffrey, a career diplomat and former ambassador during the Obama administration, said he has been put off by what he considers the highhanded tone and contradictory explanations from the White House.
“It’s this arrogant, you-just-don’t-know attitude that is taken by the administration,” Jeffrey told Foreign Policy.
In their zeal to defend what has already been agreed under an April framework accord, U.S. officials have sometimes gone out of their way to defend Iran, insisting Tehran is abiding by its promises, Jeffrey said.
The marathon diplomacy between world powers and Iran, which dates back to George W. Bush’s administration, is aimed at preventing Tehran from building nuclear weapons in return for easing punitive sanctions that have crippled the country’s economy.
With years of negotiations now approaching a dramatic crossroads, Harf acknowledged she and other officials are ready to pounce if they see misleading accounts of the talks.
“When there’s wrong information out there, the administration believes we need to push back and we need to push back hard,” Harf said.
“It’s critical for our national security that the American people have accurate information,” she said.
Harf said that the White House’s tough responses have been based on the analysis of nuclear experts inside the government. And that approach over the past year helped deflect calls for yet more sanctions on Tehran that might have caused the talks to collapse, she said.
The State Department has long argued that the nuclear deal represents a chance to avert a potential war with Iran while preventing it from securing an atomic bomb. But opponents, including Republican lawmakers and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, say the possible accord amounts to the appeasement of a dangerous regime with imperial ambitions.
In raw political terms, the Obama administration believes it has already prevailed on the issue after defeating a bid by Republican lawmakers in April to block a deal.
If an accord is clinched by Tuesday, Congress will have 30 days to review the agreement. But if the Republican majority votes against the accord, Obama can veto any proposal to ditch the agreement. And there is little prospect of Republicans managing to attract enough Democrats to back a two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto.
Although a short-term political victory seems assured, even supporters of a nuclear agreement worry that the absence of any bipartisan consensus could create risks down the road — particularly if a Republican president is elected to succeed Obama in 2016.
Ilan Goldenberg, a former Pentagon and State Department official in the Obama administration, said the White House has successfully made a case for the deal so far, with polls showing solid support among American voters for nuclear diplomacy.
But he said more should have been done from the outset to build up support among members of Congress.
“I think they could have been better in the last few years in reaching out to [Capitol] Hill and building a better relationship with the Hill,” said Goldenberg, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
By the time Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress in March to warn against what he called a “bad deal” being negotiated with Iran, the battle lines in Congress were already drawn. The time to win over skeptics or undecided lawmakers had passed.
In such a fraught, partisan climate, a small group of scientists with expertise in nuclear weapons find themselves in high demand and at the center of the debate. The technical specialists, some of them former U.N. arms inspectors and scholars in the field of nuclear proliferation, bring instant credibility to discussions about uranium enrichment and the time it could take Iran to build a nuclear weapon.
Both sides have tried to recruit these experts as “validators” to reinforce their public arguments for or against a potential deal. But some of the scientists have rejected overtures from the administration or from opponents of the talks, insisting on maintaining their independence.
David Albright, a physicist who leads the Institute for Science and International Security and who has been tracking Iran’s nuclear program for years, said he has been unfairly labeled by the administration as an opponent of an accord. He complained that a “war room” mentality has taken hold inside the White House and warned against taking a black-and-white view of the tentative deal emerging from the talks in Vienna.
“I’m very frustrated,” Albright said. “I’m seen as a hardliner or a critic or a skeptic.”
The details of the nuclear talks are complicated and intricately intertwined, touching on plutonium metallurgy, inspection procedures, the history of nonproliferation efforts, international finance, and the physics of nuclear weapons.
But the political debate is usually presented as a stark choice, between war and peace, or victory and surrender.
Experts such as Albright resent the up-or-down terms of the political war over the nuclear talks, and say the heated rhetoric makes it difficult to offer sober assessments or to discuss the facts.
He called the atmosphere around the debate “corrosive,” as it cuts off the possibility of coming up with constructive solutions for curtailing Iran’s nuclear work.
“In the end, this fight isn’t healthy. The deal is going to have some strengths and weaknesses; you need to have ways to deal with the weaknesses,” Albright said.
The lack of a consensus across party lines could have damaging consequences, he said.
“You need a real heavy commitment … for implementing this deal. You don’t want to have a situation where one [side] is looking for opportunities to undercut the other.”
But one former Obama administration official said no amount of engagement with Congress will ever win over entrenched opponents of a deal in Republican ranks.
“When have you last seen a bipartisan consensus on anything?” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“I would not fault the administration’s communications strategy for a lack of a bipartisan consensus,” the official said.
Advocates of the diplomatic effort with Iran believe Obama is poised to strike a historic breakthrough, but worry that bitter opposition on the political right could produce problems over time.
“The question will become: Can you start to actually build a bipartisan consensus around this … so that the deal can live beyond the Obama administration — if there’s a Republican president,” Goldenberg said.
Arms control agreements and other international accords can begin to unravel if a new administration sees it as a low priority or if Congress looks for ways to weaken them, he said.
“There is a big question — whether through neglect that, over time, [the deal] dies,” he said. “That’s a real danger. That has happened before.”
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