As Congress prepares to vote on the recent agreement with Iran, the deal’s Republican opponents have been competing to see who can describe it in the most horrifying terms. Mike Huckabee claimed President Obama would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven”. Senator Ted Cruz said “it will make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.” In a committee hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham scolded the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy, implying that the administration had been too eager to avoid war.
Could we win a war with Iran? Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins? … We win!
In a speech whose video has been watched more than half a million times on YouTube, former congressman Alan West denounced the “weakling in the White House” saying:
How dare Barack Obama, how dare John Kerry, how dare Valerie Jarrett, or any of these other charlatans that occupy Washington D.C., surrender this great constitutional republic to the Republic of Iran!
Senator Marco Rubio also sees “weakness”:
President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands, holds Americans hostage, and has consistently violated every agreement it ever signed.
Chris Christie said that President Obama was “giving Iran a nuclear weapon”. And he implied that they will bully more “gifts” out of us, now that the realize how weak our president is:
You give them your belt, they’ll want your pants next. That’s the way it goes
Defenses of the deal, by contrast, have been measured. The New Yorker‘s Steven Coll‘s positive analysis, for example, concludes:
The deal is imperfect but good enough, and it offers a tentative promise of a less dangerous Middle East.
Or, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, put it:
Relieving the risk of a nuclear conflict with Iran diplomatically is superior than trying to do that militarily.
Listening to this discussion, particularly the portion that penetrates the conservative bubble and bounces around its echo chamber, you might reasonably imagine that whatever small concessions we got from Iran, we gave up far too much in return. Those hard-headed and hard-fisted mullahs bullied that hapless jellyfish that we call a president, who was so eager to get any kind of deal that he gave away the store.
If that’s what you believe, you have the story exactly backwards: There is a bully in the story, but it’s the United States. We got Iran’s lunch money, and we gave up nothing.
How can that be? And if it is that way, why doesn’t President Obama beat his chest and say so?
Who? Us? The central myth of the era of American dominance (i.e., since World War II) is that our power is benign. No matter how many countries we invade or bomb, or how many governments we overthrow (as we overthrew Iran’s fledgling democracy in 1953 and reinstalled the brutal Shah), we always act on the side of right and justice. Sure, we police the world, but we’re Officer Friendly. We’re never the kind of cops who throw their weight around.
In acceptable American political debate, neither Republican nor Democratic leaders are allowed to challenge that myth. And that puts the Obama administration at a significant disadvantage as it tries to claim credit for its diplomatic victory over Iran. Because this time we did throw our weight around, and we got something.
Retelling the story. So let’s put aside the myth of benign American power and retell the story of the current agreement, beginning with the basic issue: Will Iran construct a nuclear weapon? In other words, will Iran do something that we did 70 years ago, that Israel did 50 years ago, and that Pakistan (Iran’s rival in the looming Sunni/Shia conflict) did almost 20 years ago?
I grant that in many parts of the Middle East, Iran funds and supplies groups that fight against our allies (though we find ourselves on the same side against ISIS). I grant that we (and Israel and Saudi Arabia) have good reasons to want to keep Iran from building a bomb. But let’s not pretend that Iran was doing something monstrous and unheard of when they built a secret complex capable of producing (eventually) a weaponizable quantity of fissionable material.
Iran is a moderately large country (with a population larger than traditional nuclear powers like United Kingdom or France) with oil wealth and a heritage of civilization going back to Cyrus the Great (who freed the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity). It sees a club of great nations (plus a few lesser nations) and believes it deserves to join. The fact that we have reasons to want to keep them out does not imply that their desire to join is illegitimate.
Threats of war. OK, so what have we done to stop them? During the Bush years, we negotiated a few sanctions, but mainly we rattled our sabers. (The Bush U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, is still rattling. And Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker has said “the next president could be called to take aggressive actions, including military action, on the first day in office”.) Every few months, the press would publish rumors that we (or Israel with or without our approval) were planning an attack on Iran’s nuclear laboratories and reactors, as Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. Presumably, at least some of that buzz came from intentional leaks meant to intimidate the Iranians. When the Obama administration came in, it continued to insist that “all options are on the table“. In other words, if we don’t get what we want, we might launch an attack.
If you look for any corresponding Iranian saber-rattling at us, what you mainly find are threats to counter-attack if we attack them. (These threats usually get covered in the American press as if hitting back were barbarous.)
So if there’s a Munich analogy here — I wouldn’t go there, but Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Bolton, and many other Obama critics did (including The Drudge Report photoshopping Obama’s face onto Neville Chamberlain in the photo above) — the only way it can make any sense is if we are in the Hitler role. We’re the ones who have been threatening war unless another nation agrees to our demands.
Economic warfare. But the saber-rattling wasn’t working, so the Obama administration opened a second front: Through diplomacy, it got the UN Security Council to impose far harsher sanctions on Iran than the Bush administration had managed. We had to convince Russia and China to go along with us on that, which wasn’t easy. (Russia’s desire to oppose the West in Iran goes back the Great Game between the Czars and the British Empire.) But President Obama and Secretary Clinton got it done.
The sanctions took a serious bite out of the Iranian economy, which pushed them to the negotiating table. In the negotiations that just concluded, they agreed to restrictions on their nuclear program that should prevent them from having nuclear weapons for the near-to-medium term. (Whoever is president when the agreement expires will still have all of his or her options on the table.)
Who’s the bully? In exchange for those very real concessions, we agreed to a gradual relaxing of the sanctions that we created. What we’re “giving” the Iranians are their own frozen assets. And we’re going to allow them to participate in the world economy, like any other country would.
In what sense is any of that a “concession” on our part? Imagine you’re in school, and you get a smaller kid in a headlock. He gives you his lunch money and you let him go. Have you “conceded” anything to him, really?
Your fellow bullies might claim that you let him off too easy, that if you’d squeezed a little harder he might have given you his sneakers too. And maybe they’re right: By walking away unscathed, the kid gained much more than you did, compared to the scenario where you beat the crap out of him and took his lunch money anyway. (As Senator Graham says, if it comes to war, “We win!”)
But in a larger sense, all you’ve done is let him out of a situation that you created. You have his lunch money and he has nothing of yours.
That’s the Iran deal: We have an agreement to keep them from building a bomb any time soon, and an inspection regime to make sure they keep that agreement. They got nothing from us.