The Great Senatorial Iran Bunfight continues, and just about everybody in the nation seems to have a point to make—or a bun to throw. We tossed our own pastry across the dining hall last Monday, but, amazingly, even some well-chosen words from Via Meadia failed to stop the fray. Since then, observers across the spectrum have spoken up, mostly with criticisms of the senatorial missive. Neither the intensity nor the negativity of the response should be much of a surprise; on the one hand the Iran question is one of the most important issues facing the country, and on the other the senatorial letter left itself open to criticism from a left-leaning press corps and foreign policy commentariat in ways that were too juicy to resist.
Two points made here at Via Meadia seem to be widely accepted. One is that addressing the letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran was the wrong thing to do. The letter should have been addressed either to President Obama or to Secretary Kerry, and the aim of the letter should have been to force a deeper consultation with Congress rather than to change the behavior of foreigners. This is partly a question of protocol; the President of the United States, the Secretary of State or their appointees and agents ought to be in charge of communications between foreign potentates and the United States. By addressing the letter to the leader of a hostile country rather than the U.S. executive branch the senators gave their critics a convenient stick to beat them with—and beat them with it, they have.
But our second point, initially very controversial but now acknowledged by Secretary Kerry, is that as a matter of law, the senators are right. Any deal negotiated between President Obama and Iran will not be legally binding—either on the United States or Iran. The President has the authority to bind himself through an agreement with a foreign power; he does not have the authority to bind the Congress, the courts, or his successors. The Iranians, it seems clear from their initial reaction, did not fully understand this before the senatorial letter and the State Department acknowledgement. Now they do.
As a matter of practice, the question of how binding President Obama’s John Hancock on an MOU with Iran will be is a tricky one. Since the agreement isn’t just with Iran, but with the Permanent Members of the Security Council and Germany, there will be a real cost to American credibility if we try to back out of it later. If the U.S. backs out of the deal, Iran can also walk away from its commitments—and there is no guarantee that other countries will support any sanctions that the United States would like to reimpose. And any president who reneges on President Obama’s pledge would be undercutting the credibility of any executive agreements he or she might make as well. All this makes the President’s signature much more than an empty gesture, and by suggesting that any Iran deal would be embedded in a Security Council Resolution, the administration has opened the door to an even more contentious U.S. debate. But however the deal is finally hammered out, Iran policy is so contentious and the stakes are so high that one simply cannot rule out the possibility that at some point in the future the United States would repudiate any agreement that President Obama may make.
While the Cotton letter is the center of the current Iran uproar, the real question isn’t whether the Senators did a smart thing by sending their open letter to Iran, but whether President Obama is pursuing a smart and sustainable policy with respect to Iran.
The President’s defenders are right that in many ways America’s Iran diplomacy has been handled with deftness and skill. Keeping Russia, China, Britain, Germany, and France all on the same page while the United States both tightens sanctions against Iran and works to hammer out a nuclear deal is a rare feat of cat-herding. Many of the Presidents supporters, to say nothing of his critics, haven’t given him enough credit for this—and it’s understandable that the White House feels intensely proud of the work it has done on Iran.
President Obama’s core message to his critics is that there is no realistic alternative to the policy he has pursued. If Congress wrecks this deal two things will happen: the coalition against Iran that keeps the sanctions effective will fall apart, and the world will blame the U.S. and not Iran for the failure to reach an agreement. The U.S. will then be faced with unpalatable choices: a globally unpopular military confrontation with Iran or an Iran with a bomb. These alternatives, the President believes, are so dire that, while Congress may huff and puff and grandstand all it wants, in the end the country will support any agreement that Obama signs because there isn’t anything else that we can do. If you share that view (and it is widespread, especially in the Washington foreign policy commentariat), the senatorial letter looks like a gratuitous swipe at a complex policy by partisan lunkheads who don’t understand the issues at stake. This is the view that many journalists (the kind who Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit calls “Democratic activists with bylines”) have been propagating through the media.
There are, however, some genuinely important aspects of Iran policy that the President and his defenders get wrong. The President may have handled the P5+1 talks reasonably well, but that is only part of the job. The President has failed to understand that in reality he is engaged in P5+1+3 talks: in addition to the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the original P5+1), Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. Congress need to be in the loop.
President Obama has only herded some of the cats who need to be corralled; he appears to assume that if the P5+1 and Iran are agreed, the +3 powers (Israel, Congress, and Saudi Arabia) have no choice but to fall in line. Bibi Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and the Cotton letter were very public statements by two of the +3 that they are unhappy and don’t intend to go along. This week, the third power is speaking out; news that the Saudis are stepping up their own nuclear program suggests that President Obama can’t end the nuclear arms race in the Middle East without their support.
The question of the hour is can the +3 spoil an Iran deal? If they can, President Obama needs to revise his strategy in a hurry, because his policy is heading for failure. If they can’t, then it doesn’t matter how many speeches Bibi makes, how many letters Tom Cotton writes, and how often the Saudis wring their hands.
Each of the rejectionists has a path to wrecking the Iran deal. The President knows this; he is just betting that when the moment of truth comes, none of the rejectionists will dare (or think it worthwhile) to pull the trigger. Obama believes that Israel in the last analysis will not bomb Iran as long as the deal is holding, that the Saudis will not egg the Israelis on or take other spoiler action like launching a nuclear program of their own. And he thinks that Congress won’t override his vetoes of any anti-deal legislation the two chambers manage to pass. He seems determined to follow this belief to its logical conclusion, to make the deal with Iran and defy the +3 to do their worst.
That is a high risk strategy; there may be a middle course between abandoning the effort to get a deal with Iran and daring the President’s opponents to torpedo a deal they can’t accept. As readers of this site know, I’ve long believed that the core problem with the President’s Iran strategy isn’t the quest for a nuclear deal. I absolutely think that is something we need to try. But the current course looks unsound. For one thing, pursuing the deal without better coordination with Congress is exactly the kind of historic mistake that President Wilson made when he refused to include Republican senators in the delegation that negotiated the Treaty of Versailles. Smart leaders try to avoid train wrecks. For another, the administration’s failure to contain Iran’s ambitions on the ground in the region undermines rather than supports the objective of getting to some kind of reasonable accommodation between Washington and Tehran. Finally, lifting sanctions at a moment when Iran is running rampant across the Middle East threatens to shift the balance of power even further in its favor, a prospect that contributes significantly to the spread of radicalism and chaos—and makes the Saudis much more likely to go nuclear themselves.
We’ve written before, tongue somewhat in cheek, that the President resembles Frodo toiling across Mordor—if he can cast the Ring into Mount Doom, or secure the Iran deal, it will all be worth it. But in our story, President Frodo has come a long way only to realize he neglected to forge the Fellowship—Congress, Saudi Arabia, and the Israelis—he needs to support him. (And it’s worth remembering that without Gollum, which is probably how the President sees the Republicans in Congress, Frodo’s quest would have failed in the end.)
To complete the last leg of his quest, and to ensure that his strategy has the best chance for enduring success, President Obama should work with the +3. Depending on the election returns, Israel may become a little more pliable, but the Saudis and the Republicans still need to be dealt with. The White House team needs to start talking concretely with all three about what can be done to make the deal work for them. In particular, the question is whether changes in American regional policy in the Middle East, combined with some tweaks to the deal, would be enough to get the Saudis, the Israelis and Congress to give the deal a chance.
Senator Corker, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was one of a handful of Republicans who did not sign the Cotton letter. Perhaps the White House should seek his advice about an overall Middle East policy mix, including an Iran deal of some kind, that the Congress would sustain. Could the administration agree to do more about containing Iran in exchange for Congressional support, however grudging, for a nuclear agreement? The White House also needs to check in with the Saudis and with whoever will be in charge in Jerusalem once the votes are counted and the coalition organized to ask the same question.
What’s needed here is not confrontation between the executive and the legislature, but an internal American negotiation to get an overall approach to the Middle East that commands enough support to be sustainable from one administration to the next. In the same way, our Iran policy shouldn’t be dividing us from our closest Middle East allies but forging a common approach to a common problem. If the senatorial letter, whatever its flaws, can get President Obama to the bargaining table with the Group of Three, it will have done good work.