Last week the United States – along with Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Union as a whole – signed a nuclear agreement with Iran.
2016 GOP candidates and Republicans in Congress have uniformly criticized the agreement. Governor Scott Walker said he would throw it out on “Day One” of his presidency, and Governor Jeb Bush called it “appeasement” but still suggested that it would be reckless to scuttle the agreement without first consulting US allies.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have defended the deal, saying that a rejection of it would leave the US with no ability to renegotiate, cause the other signatories to lose faith in America’s commitment to negotiations, and even lead to war.
Israel and Arab states alike expressed concern that the deal would grant Iran more power in the region. However, the UN Security Council has endorsed the deal and will soon remove sanctions on Iran regardless of domestic opposition in the US. Still, that domestic opposition is the biggest thing standing in the way of implementing the deal. Is it wise for conservatives to oppose the agreement, and if so, do they even have the ability to stop it?
Republicans are largely correct when they say this is a bad deal. Iran is being allowed to keep part of its nuclear program – essentially being legitimized as a threshold nuclear power – and in ten years its restrictions will be lifted. Long before that time, Iran will have complete relief on sanctions (including from a ban on arms sales), and Iran’s improved economic standing will surely make it easier to spread chaos in the Middle East by funneling more money to Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and others.
The best-case scenario is that Iran will fully abide by the deal, and an economic recovery will moderate or even liberalize Iranian society, ushering in a new era of engagement and détente with the West. The worst-case scenario is that hardliners in Iran who opposed the deal to begin with will cause the regime to not only send money and arms to pro-Iranian groups throughout the region, but perhaps even push the limits of the agreement and pursue a clandestine nuclear program.
The deal does provide one important new provision that otherwise would not have existed: the IAEA has the power to inspect suspected Iranian nuclear sites and monitor the entire nuclear supply chain from extraction through production. It would be more difficult to host a nuclear weapons program since it would require secrecy throughout the whole process. Still, in many respects the agreement does not meet the openly-stated goals of the Obama Administration.
One simple, crucial detail of the agreement is unsatisfying yet inescapable: the deal we have is the deal we have. President Obama has said he would veto any attempt to reject the deal, and it is highly unlikely the Republicans can garner enough Democratic votes to override the veto of a liberal president and reject a signature foreign policy achievement.
If Congress did override the veto, the president would find a unilateral way to restrict US sanctions, such as by directing the Department of Treasury and other agencies to divert resources away from enforcing sanctions. Obama has already proven willing to make executive power grabs in areas like immigration.
Republicans would certainly challenge this in court, but it would take months for the suits to work through the legal system. During this time, the deal will be consolidated internationally and other countries will remove their sanctions and implement the deal themselves.
If Congress did manage to reject the deal, it would not inevitably lead to war, as Kerry has claimed. However, the deal will have already been enshrined in international law by then, and the European signatories as well as Russia and China will almost certainly remove their sanctions rather than reopen negotiations. American sanctions alone may cause some pain, but they will be nowhere near as effective, and Iran’s economy would still improve.
The US has already struggled to maintain multilateral sanctions long enough to bring Iran to the negotiating table. One may hope that the other signatories would tolerate a Congressional rejection of the plan and return to the negotiating table to hash out a tougher deal. This is unlikely because Obama’s commitment to the current deal suggests his team lacks the capacity or the inclination to hash out a tougher deal – to say nothing of convincing the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese to go along. More likely is that the collapse of a united front will be a major diplomatic defeat for the US, while Iran will no longer have incentive to negotiate over its nuclear program at all.
It is entirely possible that Iran could attempt to cheat under the current framework and that the “snapback” sanctions provided in the agreement will be tougher to reinstate than supporters have suggested. However, at the very least it provides tools for punishing Iran without necessarily dumping the whole deal.
At the end of the day, having inspections and monitoring by the IAEA is better than having nothing. Yes, Obama’s senior advisers have said a bad deal is worse than no deal. Yes, the Obama Administration failed to deliver on many of its openly stated goals for the Iran deal, including “anytime, anywhere” inspections. But Congress has little chance of defeating Obama in the short term or reopening negotiations if they reject the deal.
Given the powerlessness of Congress in this situation, what is the path forward? First of all, America needs to elect a conservative in 2016 who is willing to try and get a better deal. One option then is to do as Scott Walker has promised to do and pull out on Day One, whether our allies join or not.
The US could unilaterally impose sanctions – thus violating the deal – or accuse Iran of not adhering to the agreement. The latter would require a dispute settlement that would eventually go to the UN Security Council, where a veto from any permanent member would automatically reinstate the sanctions. The US could veto, but a veto without solid evidence of Iranian cheating would severely alienate the other members of the agreement and cause Iran to withdraw from the deal. Back to square one, with no sanctions and evaporated support for diplomatic talks.
A more reasonable option would be to reengage with American allies, build support for a return to multilateral sanctions, and force Iran back to the negotiating table. This is not a promising avenue. It is wishful thinking to believe that they would want to reverse their growing business ties with Iran and dump a deal that they already support. For Russia and China it would be an even tougher sell, since they are even less concerned about Iranian nuclear ambitions or a Middle East arms race.
Maybe the situation will be different in 2017, and the deal will have much less support than it does now. Barring that, there is a much steeper path to persuading the other major powers. As frustrating as it is, the best possible option for a conservative president ultimately may be to push for frequent, probing inspections and aggressively punish Iranian cheating in the UN.
This is not an ideal position for our country to be in, and it highlights the limitations of American power to control events in the Middle East as well as the continuing trend of Obama presiding over a decline in US global influence.
These are the consequences of having American foreign policy mismanaged by someone who is more inclined to thwart Congress than thwart Iranian nuclear ambitions. The best opportunity to fix this is in November 2016. GOP candidates and American voters in general should take President Obama and the rest of his party to task for delivering a subpar deal, leaving our country with no alternative.
For Obama, this does not mean much besides articulating to the American public how this deal falls short and stands as yet another failure in his presidential legacy. For Hillary Clinton, this means tying her inextricably to the agreement to undermine her foreign policy credentials. She will try to simultaneously take credit for engaging Iran diplomatically as Secretary of State, while distancing herself from the controversial aspects of the agreement.
Conservatives must not let her do it. By highlighting the distance between Obama’s promises and his results, demonstrating Clinton’s complicity as an early architect of Obama’s foreign policy, and articulating a credible plan to do more to thwart Iran, Republicans can play to their traditional strengths among voters as the party of national security. Promising to reject the deal and merely talking tough on Iran is not the way to do this.