Now is the time for Obama to beat back the congressional hawks taking aim at the Iran deal.
They say you shouldn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. When it comes to Iran, it might be more appropriate to say: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the slightly less crummy of the realistic alternatives."
They say you shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. When it comes to Iran, it might be more appropriate to say: "Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the slightly less crummy of the realistic alternatives."
President Barack Obama needs to drive this point home with congressional critics of the Geneva deal. We’d all prefer to have an Iran without nuclear weapons capabilities. It would also be great to eradicate cancer tomorrow and fill Tehran with rainbows and unicorns, but none of these things is currently within our power. We don’t get to choose between an Iran with nuclear weapons capabilities and an Iran without nuclear weapons capabilities.
The choice we truly face is less appealing: Do we want a bellicose Iran that has the ability to produce nuclear weapons within a matter of months and is unremittingly hostile to U.S. interests? Or do we want an Iran that has the ability to produce nuclear weapons within a matter of months, but is no longer as unremittingly hostile to U.S. interests?
I’ll take the latter, thanks very much.
It’s not perfect. It’s not even good. But it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.
U.S. negotiators in Geneva recognized this, and they got the best deal they could, given our remarkably limited bargaining power. In fact, they got a deal that’s substantially better than most Iran watchers expected: Under the terms of the Geneva agreement, Iran will freeze further work on key nuclear facilities, neutralize all uranium enriched to 20 percent, and permit daily international inspection of sensitive sites, all in exchange for limited and temporary sanctions relief. Every permanent member of the U.N. Security Council is on board, even Russia and China, and the deal doesn’t lock anyone in permanently: It endures for six months, long enough to give negotiators time to assess each other’s good faith and see if a final agreement can be reached.
It’s not great, but it’s not chopped liver, either. After a decade of impasse and insults on both sides, it’s a small but genuine breakthrough. If all goes well in the next six months, we might even get to some bigger breakthroughs.
But that depends on President Obama’s willingness to stand firm in the face of congressional bluster.
There’s no shortage of that bluster: So far, Congress has shown a distinct bipartisan disinclination to engage in reality-based thinking. Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complains that the Geneva deal "did not proportionately reduce Iran’s nuclear program." Sen. John McCain has called the deal a "dangerous step that degrades our pressure on the Iranian regime." Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, objects that the deal does not "require Iran to completely halt its enrichment efforts or dismantle its centrifuges." Sen. Marco Rubio agrees, insisting that there should be no sanctions relief until "Iran completely abandons its enrichment and reprocessing capabilities."
Rainbows and unicorns, guys.
Short of all-out war, the Obama administration — and the rest of the international community — has essentially zero ability to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program completely. We’ve tried, remember? As I wrote on Nov. 21, for two decades, we’ve threatened, we’ve blustered, and we’ve piled sanctions on top of sanctions. And for two decades, Iran has continued to advance its nuclear program. We can keep up the sanctions for the next two decades, but we’re likely to get an even angrier, more desperate Iran that would still continue to build up its nuclear program.
Similarly, limited military strikes won’t get Iran to end its nuclear program — but they sure will piss off the Iranians. The consensus among military and intelligence experts is that such strikes would, at most, set Iran’s nuclear program back by a few years, while convincing Iran that it needs nukes as a matter of truly urgent self-defense.
That leaves all-out war with Iran. If we’re willing to pull out all the stops — with sustained airstrikes and a massive ground invasion — we might be able to completely dismantle Iran’s nuclear facilities. Maybe. But the outcome would be uncertain and the price would be horrific, both for Iranian civilians and for the United States and Israel.
Congressional hawks should stop bloviating and help the president make this deal work. It’s funny: Just a few months ago, many of the very same hawkish legislators who are now threatening to destroy the Iran deal by imposing new sanctions were insisting on the importance of executive-legislative unity when bargaining with adversarial foreign states. Remember Syria? When President Obama declared his intention to ask Congress to authorize military action against President Bashar al-Assad, Sen. McCain declared, "A vote against that resolution by Congress I think would be catastrophic. It would undermine the credibility of the United States of America and the president of the United States. None of us want that."
If "none of us want that," it’s hard to see why it’s important for Congress to back the president when it comes to threats to use military force, but fine for Congress to undermine the president when he tries to use diplomacy so we can avoid resorting to military force.
President Obama needs to make it clear that it’s his job, not Congress’s, to broker deals with foreign powers. That’s not just a policy preference: It’s the way the U.S. Constitution divvies up authority between the executive and legislative branches. As the Supreme Court declared in U.S. v Curtiss Wright, the president "alone negotiates: Into the field of negotiation, the Senate cannot intrude; and Congress itself is powerless to invade it."
In fact, it’s an open constitutional question whether Congress can impose mandatory sanctions on a foreign state over the president’s strong objection. Congress has the power to regulate foreign commerce, but the president is vested with executive power and is the sole representative of the United States vis-a-vis foreign states. Just as the congressional power to declare war does not prevent the president from using military force in what he views as emergencies — whether Congress likes it or not — the congressional power to regulate foreign commerce can’t force the president to implement sanctions that would undermine a time-sensitive executive agreement if doing so, in the president’s view, would jeopardize vital national-security interests.
Any congressional efforts to completely eliminate the president’s foreign-affairs discretion could lead to a constitutional showdown, which Congress would almost certainly lose. If Congress passed new sanctions legislation that the president believed would undermine the deal with Iran, he could veto it; if Congress mustered up the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a veto, the president could simply refuse to implement the sanctions. The courts would be unlikely to side with C
ongress because, traditionally, they have viewed such disputes as "political questions" best resolved through the ballot box.
In their heart of hearts, most congressional grandstanders understand this: It’s the reason sanctions legislation generally includes presidential waiver clauses, allowing the president to put aside sanctions for a limited (but renewable) period of time when he believes doing so is vital to U.S. national-security interests.
President Obama should keep all this in mind as he engages with Congress and the public over the coming weeks. Lots of things could jeopardize the Geneva deal — the Iranians could renege, the Israelis could decide to use unilateral force, other Security Council members could have second thoughts. But here in the United States, the only thing that could truly endanger the deal would be presidential wavering in the face of congressional criticism. Congress can huff and Congress can puff, but as long as the president stands firm, Capitol Hill has little more power to kill the Geneva deal than the United States has to force Iran to completely abandon its nuclear program.
To put it a little differently, President Obama holds the cards — but if he wants to win, he has to be willing call Congress’s bluff. He shouldn’t be defensive, and he shouldn’t mince words: He should tell congressional hawks straight out that if they manage to pass any new sanctions legislation that would prevent him from keeping the promises made in Geneva, he would regard that as an unconstitutional infringement upon his powers to negotiate on behalf of the United States and protect vital national-security interests. He should make it crystal clear that he would veto any such legislation — and that even if Congress pushed it through over his veto, he would not implement it.
There’s political risk in standing firm, but at this point, the president has far more to lose if he wavers. What’s more, public opinion is firmly on his side: Unlike congressional hawks, most Americans understand that this deal is the best available option. President Obama should remind Congress that we need to work with what we have, not with what we wish we had — and what we have, right now, is a deal with a halfway decent chance of working.
Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa
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