Why Do So Many People Want So Little From the Agreement With Iran?

Across the political spectrum, pundits — like Hillary Clinton — are downplaying the potential of the Iran deal. And it’s a terrible waste of diplomacy.

People attend a rally organized by the Tea Party Patriots against the Iran nuclear deal in front of the Capitol in Washington, DC, on September 9, 2015.  AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
People attend a rally organized by the Tea Party Patriots against the Iran nuclear deal in front of the Capitol in Washington, DC, on September 9, 2015. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite some last-minute shenanigans from congressional Republicans, the nuclear agreement with Iran is a done deal. Its passage is a singular achievement for Barack Obama’s administration — which conducted the negotiations skillfully and defended the agreement adroitly back home — and for the broad coalition of groups, organizations, and interested citizens who helped explain why it was in the U.S. national interest.

But make no mistake: Opponents of the deal haven’t given up. After failing to stop the agreement itself, a bipartisan group of politicians and policy wonks are now trying to ensure the United States derives the least possible benefit from it. What is most remarkable is that this response isn’t coming just from die-hard Obama-haters, Republican presidential candidates, or disgruntled AIPAC members. It is also getting support from some Democrats, moderates, and otherwise sensible people in the foreign-policy establishment.

To be more specific, having secured a landmark agreement rolling back Iran’s nuclear program, a bunch of influential people are now demanding the United States take a variety of steps whose avowed purpose and likely effect will be to keep U.S.-Iranian relations trapped in a spiral of suspicion, demonization, and counterproductive rivalry. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has prepared “poison pill” legislation designed to undermine the agreement; his effort won’t succeed, but it sends the unmistakable message that American politicians are still looking to punish the Iranian people every chance they get. A bevy of former national security officials and/or neoconservatives keep calling upon the United States to give an already well-armed Israel a big pile of weapons it doesn’t need, such as the bunker-busting Massive Ordnance Penetrator, even though the Israeli Air Force doesn’t want it and has no airplanes that could carry it. They’d also like to preemptively authorize the president to attack Iran should it violate the agreement, a mostly symbolic gesture that will only reinforce Iranian concerns about U.S. intentions. (Pro tip: If you want Iran to think that it doesn’t need a nuclear deterrent of its own and should therefore abide by the agreement, threatening to bomb them at a moment’s notice is not your best move).

So as not to be outflanked, Hillary Clinton went on record last week with a hawkish public speech that endorsed the nuclear agreement but went on to insist it “is not the start of some larger diplomatic opening.” To drive the point home, she emphasized, “my starting point is one of distrust.” What a diplomat she is. Even my colleague Nicholas Burns, who helped open the door to Iran and has defended the agreement with energy and eloquence, says the United States must now redouble its efforts to “contain” a supposedly dangerous and expansionist Iran. Before the ink is even dry, in short, many people seem to want to head off any possibility that relations with Iran might continue to improve.

For GOP stalwarts, this sort of behavior stems from a nearly pathological hostility to anything the Obama administration has ever done. Having failed to defeat the agreement itself, they would now like to ensure that it fails, much as they once hoped Obamacare would actually make Americans less healthy. If prodding Iran today helps scuttle the deal tomorrow, it would suit the GOP just fine.

For AIPAC and the rest of the hard-line wing of the Israel lobby, this agreement is a rare but telling defeat. Their consolation prize, however, is the opportunity to extort some more military aid for Israel and to do whatever they can to ensure Iran remains a pariah state. The last thing they want is a Middle East where the United States can talk readily to all the significant actors, and where the Iranian bogeyman is no longer there to distract people from the still-unresolved conflict between Israel and its Palestinian subjects. Given those objectives, Plan B is to make this agreement as inconsequential as possible.

And for Hillary and others moderates, tough talk on Iran is a way to avoid being seen as “soft” on national security policy. Because being perceived as genuinely interested in peace is the kiss of death for those seeking to rise inside the foreign policy establishment, some of the people who supported this sensible agreement may now try to reaffirm their credentials as sober and tough-minded patriots. With the nuclear agreement a done deal, the easiest way to avoid accusations of appeasement is to endorse some new effort to hit Iran where it hurts.

But this entire approach is woefully shortsighted. Instead of viewing the agreement as an opportunity to at least explore the possibility of ending thirty-five years of rivalry and rancor, advocates of a new hard line are guaranteeing the agreement achieves the absolute minimum. Even worse, their counsel could even jeopardize the success of the JCPOA itself.

Look, nobody here is naive about the Iranian regime or thinks improving relations with Iran would be easy. The United States has some genuine conflicts of interest with Iran and the JCPOA addresses only one of them. The parties to the agreement need to make sure everyone implements it properly, and Washington should stand ready to address any deviations that may occur. As Obama has emphasized from the start, none of this involves “trusting” Iran, and U.S. policy going forward should always be based on a hardnosed assessment of U.S. interests. Nor should U.S. officials be bashful about raising other issues of contention between Washington and Tehran, including Iran’s support for the Assad regime and its other regional activities.

But is this the best moment to be ratcheting up the anti-Iranian rhetoric, rearming Iran’s much-better-armed regional rivals, and imposing new unilateral sanctions that no other country will honor and that will have no positive impact? Won’t continuing to treat Iran as a pariah reinforce its own hard-liners’ claims that the “Great Satan” is irrevocably hostile, and give them every reason to continue the activities that still concern us? At the very least, isn’t assuming the worst about Iran — something the United States has done for decades — just a self-fulfilling prophecy that guarantees we’ll get the minimum possible benefit from this agreement?

In fact, this all-too-familiar approach is even worse than that.

First, increasing the pressure post-agreement means the United States will miss the economic benefits from Iran’s imminent reemergence. Iran is badly in need of foreign investment and its citizens are going to buy a lot of things from the outside world once its economy improves. Piling on more sanctions and restricting what U.S. banks and firms can do is a terrific way to ensure that Europe, Russia, China, India, Japan, and lots of other countries make a lot of money, while we miss out.

Second, trying to keep Iran in the penalty box for another decade or more will frustrate the democratic aspirations of Iran’s own citizens—and especially its youth—who yearn for better relations with the outside world in general and the United States in particular. A striking feature of the debate on the nuclear agreement was the support it received from many in the Iranian-American community, and from Iranian human rights advocates, who correctly saw more normal relations with Iran as a way to strengthen moderate parts of Iranian society. It’s no wonder Iran’s Cheneys oppose the deal; can you imagine how worried they’d be if the United States started pursuing more constructive relations with Iran, began welcoming Iranian students to U.S. universities, and deprived the mullahs of an all-too convenient enemy?

Third, a broader détente could help both sides address regional issues where U.S. and Iranian interests are largely identical. Washington and Tehran both oppose the Islamic State and have similar hostile views of the Taliban. Both countries could also benefit from cooperating on anti-narcotics efforts too. Greeting the nuclear agreement with a new round of anti-Iranian hostility merely guarantees there will be no progress on any of these issues either.

Meanwhile, the greater Middle East is rapidly going from bad to worse. There’s a prolonged civil war in Syria, and a flood of refugees pouring into Europe. There are failed states in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and to some degree Iraq. There is still a cruel occupation in the West Bank and unending squalor in Gaza, with an Israeli-Palestinian peace process that is now moribund. Conflict between Turkey and the Kurds has resumed and extremist movements such as the Islamic State are increasingly worrisome. None of this is Iran’s doing, by the way; if anything, the United States has done far more to destabilize the region than Iran has.

In this deteriorating environment, the United States and all of the regional states have an overriding interest in halting these conflicts as soon as possible and trying to rebuild a reasonably stable regional order. That vital task is not something the United States can do by itself, and it cannot be done if we try to exclude any significant regional player. If the United States continues its decades-long effort to marginalize Iran and its nearly eighty million people — as opponents of the deal would like — it will give Tehran more reason to thwart any plans Washington does come up with, and broader efforts at regional peacemaking will fail.

Fourth, as I’ve argued previously, keeping Iran at arm’s length (or worse) reduces U.S. diplomatic leverage and flexibility. As long as U.S. Middle East policy remains fixated on its “special relationships” with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and to some extent Egypt, these states will continue to take U.S. support for granted and ignore U.S. preferences more often than we’d like. But if the United States had decent working relations with every state in the region — including Iran — it could work constructively with any or all of them. Moreover, this situation would encourage competing regional powers to do more to keep us happy and win our support. Needless to say, this possibility is precisely why some of our current allies would like to make sure that the JCPOA produces only a cold peace, if that.

Finally, as Gene Gerzhoy explains in an important article, the JCPOA itself is more likely to succeed if the broader relationship with Iran improves. If relations remain hostile, some Iranians will still wonder if they might one day need a stronger deterrent and Americans will be more worried about even the slightest deviation from the terms of the agreement itself. As we saw with the earlier Agreed Framework with North Korea, keeping relations in the deep freeze makes it easy for both sides to believe the other is not fulfilling its obligations, which in turn encourages further cheating. So if you believe the JCPOA is a positive agreement and you want it to succeed, you should also be in favor of continued efforts to build better relations with Iran.

To repeat: No one should be naive about the current or future state of U.S.-Iranian relations, and I’m not suggesting the United States turn a blind eye to Iranian activities to which we rightly object. There is no guarantee the nuclear agreement will lead to better relations with Iran. My point is that the United States ought to seriously consider reasonable steps to encourage that outcome instead of thinking up clever ways to limit its impact (at best) or to get it to fail (at worst). The United States is a still-mighty superpower, it is far stronger than Iran, and it can safely explore these possibilities without putting its own security or that of its allies in jeopardy. Given those realities, ambitious and imaginative members of our foreign policy community ought to be drooling about the possibilities and thinking creatively about how to bring them about. There is much to be gained if such efforts succeed, and little to lose if they do not.

In short, the United States should strive to build on the JCPOA not because we are a country run by idealistic peaceniks or serial appeasers, but because we are a nation of pragmatic and hard-headed realists who understand that turning the corner with Iran must be a key part of any effort to restore peace and stability to a divided and dangerous region.

Photo credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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