Highly Enriched Politics

The Iran debate is a window into the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Here's where the would-be candidates stand.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

On Jan. 20, Iran and the United States implemented the first steps in the deal that will put a temporary freeze on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) means that Iran will begin getting rid of its stockpile of higher-grade uranium and dismantling some of its enrichment facilities. The United States, in return, will provide Iran with over $6 billion in relief from economic sanctions. The agreement is intended to last one year while the sides attempt a more comprehensive settlement that puts Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions permanently on ice. Although the media’s focus has been on the slowing spin of centrifuges, another type of spin is worth keeping tabs on.

In late 2013, a congressional effort to impose more sanctions on Iran surged. The sanctions are stalled, for now, because too few Democrats shared the Republicans’ enthusiasm to give the effort a bipartisan veneer. Although practical lessons didn’t emerge, partisan ones did: Many of the politicos were strategically speaking up — or shutting up — to stake out some early foreign-policy positions in advance of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The controversial negotiations offered many presidential hopefuls — a wide-open GOP field, and the shadow if-not-Hillary-then-me contenders on the Democratic side — their first chance to shake their foreign-policy tail feathers in front of the faithful. The problem is that the would-be commanders in chief seem to be drawing conflicting lessons from the recent history of national security’s role in presidential politics.

During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, national security stature helped John Kerry in the primary — but George W. Bush more in the general election. Four years later, anger over Iraq war votes gave Barack Obama momentum for an upset in the presidential primary and did as much as anything to doom John McCain’s chances in the general election. But in 2012, unlike in the previous two cycles, national security played no role in deciding the primary and almost no role in the general election, despite Republican Mitt Romney’s best efforts to stoke old fears about Democrats on security.

So which will it be in 2016? Will national security be a winning issue or a non-issue? The Iran debate presents a guide to the naysayers and doomsdayers.


It’s no surprise that several Republican hopefuls are competing to see who can bash the administration’s foreign policy the hardest. And policy that involves talking with favorite bogeyman Iran is an irresistible target. One thing these hopefuls — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, to name a few — know how to do is get media coverage and occupy airspace.

As soon as the interim nuclear deal with Iran was signed in November 2013, Cruz and Rubio fired off press statements and posed under the bright lights of news cameras. "The administration has gotten it backwards and it is time to reverse course before any further damage is done," Cruz said in a statement. Rubio, who’d struck a moderate tone in previous foreign-policy outings, sharpened his rhetoric and showcased his policy chops in a statement: "This agreement shows other rogue states that wish to go nuclear that you can obfuscate, cheat, and lie for a decade, and eventually the United States will tire and drop key demands." Mid-negotiation, Cruz and Rubio, as well as Wall Street darling Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, co-sponsored controversial legislation to impose yet even more sanctions on Iran.

Rubio has worked for several years to establish himself as the Republican Party’s next statesman, positioned somewhere between Richard Lugar and McCain. But if Iran is to be his chance to shine, he will have to elbow the others aside — not an easy task when the competition includes Santorum, who in a statement called the agreement "an act of a desperate" chief executive hoping to change the political narrative away from the troubles of Sure, there was blowback that the largely GOP sanctions initiative lacked statesmanlike features, but this approach might diminish the effectiveness of the actual policy critique and could still suit the purpose of attracting die-hard primary voters.


Not every potential Republican challenger thinks being front and center to oppose the Iran deal is a winning strategy. Last summer, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed ready to take on the mantle of traditional GOP foreign policy, critiquing fellow 2016 hopeful Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky for his views on counterterrorism and the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs, which ignited a nasty summer feud between the two. But now, both he and Paul — who has spoken and voted against moves toward war with Iran — have been remarkably quiet. Christie outraged the conservative blogosphere by declining to comment on the talks while they were still in process: "I’m the governor of New Jersey, and I think a lot of people … are significantly better briefed on this than I am.… When guys like me start to shoot off on opinions about this kind of stuff, it’s really ill-advised." (Quite a contrast to his voluble response to Bridgegate.)

Paul has stuck to his guns, currently one of just two Republican senators not backing the imposition of more sanctions during the talks. He has declined to speak publicly about Iran, but he has gone ahead and reminded observers of where he stands on war issues by introducing a bill to repeal the 2002 authorization for use of military force in Iraq.

Other Republican governors piped up in early November 2013, just before the deal was signed: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a statement saying that the talks had lost momentum, which was "a positive sign that common sense and security are prevailing." In Wisconsin, when a reporter asked Gov. Scott Walker what foreign-policy strengths he would bring to the White House, he didn’t miss a beat: "a toughness … absent from the White House on areas such as Syria and Iran," as the reporter characterized his remarks. But since the deal was signed on Nov. 24, the country’s governors — including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (who has criticized Obama’s Iran policy in the past) — have stayed out of the fray entirely.


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not spoken publicly on the deal, but Politico reported that one source close to her said that she "favors giving diplomacy with Iran a chance to work but has lingering worries about the country making good on its pledges in the recent interim deal to freeze its nuclear program, as well as its support of global terrorism and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria." The same source went on to explain that Clinton’s silence has been out of respect, saying that she doesn’t want to step on the toes of Kerry, her successor at the State Department. Or perhaps she doesn’t care to be in the spotlight again, as was the case when she threw her support behind Obama’s proposal for bomb strikes on Syria. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a darling of progressives, stayed silent on the Iran deal for more than two weeks before endorsing it in her remarks at a Banking Committee hearing.

In recent years, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have trumpeted state-level initiatives to sanction and constrain Iran — but since the deal, neither has uttered a peep. In fact, this month, when Cuomo announced the settlement of an investigation into bank violations of existing Iran sanctions, the governor actively ducked a reporter’s question on the recent nuclear accord.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker co-sponsored the new sanctions bill, but didn’t oppose the agreement or the talks. Meanwhile Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, on the radar for 2016, has seemed to praise the sanctions bill, but declined to co-sponsor it.

The one exception is Vice President Joe Biden, who has been pitching domestic constituencies and working Capitol Hill in support of the deal. Biden doesn’t have much choice, of course, but he has not tried to hedge or telegraph concerns to supporters.

* * *

Potential candidates are looking at the nuclear deal with Iran and judging it in three ways: oppose it to maintain a high profile, remain a bit ambiguous, or avoid the topic entirely and maintain a low profile. Why is there such division? The answer: public response to the deal.

An Associated Press-GfK survey found that 59 percent of Americans polled approved of the first-step agreement, while 38 percent opposed it. Those numbers tracked with a Washington Post poll taken before the deal was reached and a Hart Research Associates-Americans United for Change poll immediately after the agreement was signed, which recorded even higher support. A contemporaneous Pew Research Center poll, however, recorded that 43 percent disapproved the deal, while 32 percent approved; and pollster Frank Luntz found similar dissatisfaction. Expressions of support seemed to depend strongly on partisanship and the amount of information provided to the respondents (more information about outcomes and international support increased support for the deal).

Public support matters. In fact, political insiders are still scratching their heads in surprise at how forcefully the public, across party lines, pushed back on the Obama administration’s proposed action in Syria. Republican and Democratic hopefuls alike who hope to win primaries with the argument that they will most successfully appeal across the aisle in the general election seem to be concluding that this means not stirring war fatigue in the public. But Republican voters are more open overall to the use of force, and considerably more when that force is used by Republicans. So Democratic candidates, even those who have been hawkish in the past, seem to be muting their thoughts on war — while some GOP contenders go quiet and others go loud.

So, then, what is the bottom line for electoral politics? The 2016 race looks set to be a referendum on the economy, health care, and Obama. But Iran is a wild card. It could play like the Iraq vote in 2008. Or not. Or it could play the way the blowback against Bosnia helped Sen. Bob Dole in 1996 — which is to say, not at all. If it’s a big win for Obama, Democrats can try to claim some of it, the country will sigh in relief and move on, and the GOP hard-core will still be angry. If it blows up, maybe there’ll be a stampede for the most effective "told you so." The administration’s success in wrangling Congress — or to come out punching and make the Republican obstructionists look like warmongers — will end up defining the class of 2016’s options. That means two very challenging years in which public debate and partisanship further cloud the ability to conduct and communicate a coherent foreign policy.

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