Never Waver

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."

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 Congress 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.


By Other Means

Smother 'Em With Love

Why it’s time for the United States to cuddle up with Iran.

"Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer," said Sun Tzu -- or maybe it was Petrarch, or Machiavelli, or Michael Corleone. Whatever: As U.S. negotiators resume talks with Iran in Geneva this week, we would do well to embrace this philosophy.

For more than three decades, the United States has done everything possible to marginalize, contain, and generally mess with Iran, yet Iran's nuclear capabilities have only advanced -- and its ability to throw up roadblocks against U.S. aspirations in the Middle East has continued unabated. It's time to accept that further efforts to marginalize and contain Iran are unlikely to improve the situation. At this point, we don't need fewer military, economic, and cultural ties to Iran -- we need more. It's time to bring Iran closer.

Consider some realities.

First Reality: Iran already has nuclear weapons capabilities. As Harvard's Graham Allison put it in an August article, "Iran has overcome the most significant obstacle to making a bomb: it has mastered the technologies to enrich uranium indigenously. It has operated production lines to produce a stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) that, after further enrichment, would provide the cores for more than six nuclear bombs. Since 2010 it has been enriching uranium to a level of 20 percent (medium enriched uranium or MEU). As a technical fact, that means it has done 90 percent of the work required to produce the highly enriched uranium (HEU) needed for an explodable nuclear bomb."

Implication: If Iran is absolutely determined to build a nuclear weapon, it already has the ability to do so. The only real question is how long the process would take: Some experts believe it would be a matter of weeks, while others think it might be closer to a year. Opinions also vary as to the likelihood that such a bomb-making operation would be detected by the United States prior to successful completion.

This isn't good news -- there's nothing "good" about further nuclear weapons proliferation. But it's not the end of the world, either.

The cold logic of nuclear deterrence still operates, and Iran's leaders show every sign of being rational actors: The country has powerful regional enemies, which gives it a similarly powerful incentive to develop indigenous nuclear weapons capabilities. At the same time, Iran's leaders know it would be extraordinarily risky to cross that final bridge and create a nuclear bomb (Israel has an itchy trigger finger). Still more important, they know that to use a nuclear weapon would be to court national obliteration. Finally, they have zero incentive to supply nuclear technologies to terrorists: As Stephen Walt asks, "Why would any country devote millions of dollars and decades of effort to get a few bombs, and then blithely give them away to people over whom they had little control?"

Second Reality: At this point, piling on more sanctions is likely to damage U.S. objectives. Clearly, years of sanctions have not prevented Iran from advancing its nuclear program: On the contrary, Iran has crossed red line after red line over the last two decades.

Recent, more aggressive U.S. and international sanctions have undeniably weakened Iran's economy, but here, too, the impact of sanctions has been mixed at best. On the one hand, the economic woes brought about by tougher sanctions undeniably have played a role in bringing Iran back to the bargaining table. On the other hand, as Joy Gordon noted in an Oct. 18 Foreign Policy article, some analysts think that by "limiting Iran's ability to buy and produce oil, gasoline, and natural gas," sanctions may have convinced Iran's leaders that it's now "much more imperative to develop nuclear energy to meet the needs of the population."

Sanctions -- "smart" or not -- also hurt ordinary Iranians far more than they hurt regime leaders. That's a humanitarian problem, but it also has implications for U.S. security. Data from a Gallup poll released in early November suggests that sanctions have increased anti-U.S. sentiment in Iran: While 85 percent of Iranians now say that sanctions have affected their own economic well-being, 47 percent blame the United States, and only 13 percent blame the Iranian government. (Interestingly, only 9 percent say they blame Israel.)

Worse, sanctions seem to have led to greater popular support for Iran's nuclear program: 68 percent of Iranians -- an uptick from the last Gallup poll -- now support continuing the program despite the painful impact of economic sanctions. Even Iranian Jews recently rallied in support of Iran's nuclear program. Unsurprisingly, many Iranians view their nation's nuclear program through the lens of national pride: Why should a small number of states get to close the nuclear club? If the world can accept that Israel, Pakistan, and India have nuclear weapons, why not Iran?

At this point, tightening sanctions still further would be either ineffective or dangerous, particularly while negotiations are ongoing. It could have the unintended consequence of shoring up hard-line anti-U.S. actors inside Iran, which could drive Iran away from the negotiating table. This, in turn, could increase, rather than decrease, the prospects for catastrophic military confrontation between Iran and Western powers.

Third Reality: A military confrontation with Iran would be similarly ineffective and dangerous. Iran knows it, the U.S. military knows it, the White House knows it, Israeli intelligence knows it. The only ones who seem not to know it are Benjamin Netanyahu and certain congressional Republicans.

Iran's nuclear facilities aren't soft targets: The Fordow enrichment facility is under a mountain. Most analysts believe that U.S. or Israeli strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities would delay Iranian weapons production capabilities for a few years, but not destroy it, and such strikes could easily harden Iran's determination to build nuclear bombs. As a nonpartisan Wilson Center report -- produced by former top U.S. diplomats and military officials -- concluded in 2012, it's likely that "a U.S. attack on Iran would increase Iran's motivation to build a bomb, because 1) the Iranian leadership would become more convinced than ever that regime change is the goal of U.S. policy, and 2) building a bomb would be seen as a way to inhibit future attacks and redress the humiliation of being attacked." 

All this might also increase the temptation for the United States or Israel to escalate any initially limited military action, going after a broader range of Iranian military targets as well as nuclear facilities -- or even seeking regime change. But that's not a smart path to take either. Military action is expensive and unpredictable, and strikes against Iran could trigger anything from direct Iranian retaliation to a dramatic increase in anti-U.S. or anti-Israel terror attacks and spreading regional conflict. As Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it late in 2012, "The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could, in my view, prove catastrophic, haunting us for generations in that part of the world."  (Or as former CENTCOM commander General Anthony Zinni memorably quipped, "I tell my friends, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you'll love Iran.")

To sum up: Iran already has the ability to create nuclear weapons, additional sanctions won't help, and military action against Iran would be foolhardy in the extreme.

What's left to do?

Smother ‘em with love.

I'm not kidding. Iran seems -- finally -- genuinely interested in seeking ways out of the current impasse. Maybe that's due to the bite of recent sanctions, maybe it's due to Iranian fears of a military strike, or maybe the Iranians are just plain tired of being international pariahs. But right now, Iran is looking for face-saving ways to reach a deal.

Let's help them. We should seek to enmesh Iran so tightly in economic and cultural partnerships with the United States and international community that future hostilities become unthinkable.

In exchange for Iranian concessions on uranium enrichment, we should offer not only an end to sanctions, but a roadmap toward full normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations. This can't happen overnight-and as with the removal of sanctions, steps toward normalization can be reevaluated if Iran reneges on its promises. But steps toward normalization should start soon, with small-scale, mutually respectful confidence-building measures that go beyond those directly linked to Iran's nuclear program.

These might include joint U.S.-Iranian efforts to provide humanitarian assistance in Syria, for instance -- or, more ambitiously, joint efforts to seek a political solution to that conflict. Iran has so far been reluctant to endorse a plan that would result in Syria's Bashar al-Assad leaving power, but there are some indications of increasing Iranian willingness to support a political transition.

Confidence-building measures could also include increased Coast Guard and Naval  maritime cooperation between the United States and Iran, as well as joint efforts to provide humanitarian aid and broker political agreements in other regional trouble spots, from Iraq to Afghanistan. Iranians have as much national pride as Americans -- and treating Iran as a genuine partner in efforts to increase regional stability will help soothe the status and security anxieties driving the country's nuclear program.

Finally, we shouldn't discount the value of old-fashioned cultural and educational cooperation and exchanges. As part of a negotiated roadmap to normalization, why not include stepped-up efforts to encourage medical and scientific collaboration on matters unrelated to nuclear technologies? What about a well-funded program designed to bring young Iranians to study or work in the United States, with a reciprocal program bringing young Americans to Iran?

At the moment, Iran is an adversary, not a friend, and there's no guarantee that such measures will lead to a harmonious friendship between the United States and Iran. After all, the nuclear issue isn't the only barrier to good relations: Iran's support for Hezbollah is another, and its dismal human rights practices also stand in the way.

But even if we never become friends, there are purely pragmatic reasons for staying close to our enemies: Increasing connections reduces incentives for conflict and augments incentives for collaboration. Enhancing connections and transparency also gives each nation a clearer understanding of the other's capabilities and motivations, which makes misunderstandings and inadvertent slights and challenges less likely.

Will we all someday sing "Kumbayah" together in Tehran? I don't know, I don't care, and actually I hope not, since I don't remember the words (and I doubt they sound better in Farsi). Bringing Iran closer isn't something we should do out of sheer loving-kindness. It's a path dictated by pure, hard-headed self-interest.