Michael KreponWhen Leaders Follow Insurgents

How much has the Republican Party on Capitol Hill lost its equilibrium? Just hear the histrionics about the Iran deal — a deal which has the unanimous support of the UN Security Council and every U.S. ally and friend around the world save one: the Government of Israel. A deal that prevents Iran from producing nuclear weapons for 10-15 years and perhaps much longer. And a deal that has no support among Republican leaders on Capitol Hill.

Instead, these leaders are in lock-step with Party insurgents. They’ve signed up rather than be overrun. Even the thoughtful Republican Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, has brought a harsh, new demeanor to these hearings.

Most Republicans will vote to torpedo the deal and can be expected to try repeatedly to block its implementation. Far too few are reserving judgment, engaging in fact-finding, genuinely hearing people out and weighing down-side risks. For all but seven Republican senators (now six, with Corker’s declaration at the outset of the hearings), certainty has come quickly. Very decent and highly capable people in the Obama Administration have tried their best to prevent Iran from getting the Bomb and the United States from fighting another unnecessary, preventive war in the Middle East. In return for their efforts they received invective. Denunciations flowed. Pithy, cutting quotes were at the ready. The auto-da-fé was teed up and the grandstand wasn’t disappointed.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact has gotten a pass. Naysayers, including Charles Krauthammer, are certain that this is the worst agreement ever negotiated. Krauthammer & Co. were equally certain about the need for a preventive war to rid Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction. Republican newcomers to Capitol Hill who weren’t present and voting for that historic mistake are leading the charge against the Iran deal. One is Freshman Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who has the brains (Harvard, Harvard Law) and combat experience (Afghanistan) to be wary of asking U.S. military forces to fight another preventive war in the Middle East.

Instead, Cotton rounded up all but the aforementioned seven Republican colleagues to send an open letter to the Mullahs seeking common cause to nix the deal. This is what passes for leadership these days in the Party whose Presidents forged strategic arms limitation agreements with the Soviet Union, broke the back of the superpower arms race, and opened doors to “Red” China.

Opponents of the deal, taking their cues from Benjamin Netanyahu, say that a “no” vote is not a vote for war. It’s a vote for a better deal. Right. And when a better deal is not forthcoming, when sanctions unravel, and when Tehran carries out activities that are banned by this agreement, then what? The choices are war or a climbdown – just as with Saddam Hussein.

Barack Obama was first elected president on a platform to bridge domestic divides. No longer. Partisanship is worse now than at any other time in U.S. history – even as U.S. forces remain in harm’s way. Is it any wonder why Obama chose to seal this deal as a political compact rather than a treaty? By going this route, and by announcing up front his intention to veto Congressional resolutions of disapproval, he has made reflexive Republican opposition to this deal easier. But had he not done so, would there have been more reflection and less reflexive opposition? Would there have been more serious contemplation about the costs of rejection? Or handing Netanyahu a veto over U.S. national security policy in the Middle East? I seriously doubt it.


  1. YankeeCynic (History)

    What I find to be especially baffling is this notion that the Iran deal is somehow an act of appeasement. Since when is signing a deal where somebody agrees to give up what was previously an important policy decision that was used to shore up internal support appeasing?

    I know that term has become almost a meaningless “snarl-word” for many people in certain quarters, more intended to poison the well than it is to facilitate meaningful discussion. Bring up any end-state with Iran outside of total capitulation and almost before you can finish you’re being bombarded with accusations of being an “appeaser” faster than you can say “Chamberlain’s Umbrella”. Never mind the fact it’s an incorrect use of the word, the whole point is that it’s intended to shut down any discussion of the topic by attempting to link your position with the rise of Hitler. It was tiresome a year ago, and it’s doubly tiresome now.

  2. Scott Monje (History)

    I can’t say if Corker welcomed this free-for-all (I’d like to think he didn’t), but he clearly saw it coming. I think the structure of the deal for handling the agreement shows that. The agreement goes through (1) if Congress approves it, (2) if Congress is unable to get its act together enough to do anything whatsoever–always a possibility to take into account these days, or (3) if Congress disapproves of it but can’t get the support of enough Democrats to override a veto. It’s clearly structured to favor passage regardless of congressional craziness. This allows the Republicans to play to the base (in ways that at least some of them recognize as irresponsible) without having to take the historic responsibility for destroying a major arms-control effort. And, what’s more, once they’ve failed to kill it, they’ll be able to continue attacking it all the way through the electoral cycle, just as they have done with Obamacare. (And, as with Obamacare, whether it actually performs well or poorly will have no impact on how they describe it.) It’s all in keeping with a party whose members now have greater concern about the next Tea Party primary challenge than they have for the state of the nation.

  3. DrRansom (History)

    Perhaps you could consider the opposing view, the deal front-ends concessions to Iran: end of trade sanctions, end of UN arms and ballistic missile embargos, and formation of an internationally guaranteed Iranian enrichment program in return for UN control of the Iranian enrichment process for 10 – 15 years. (Of course, you could ask why Iranian arms and ballistic weapon embargos are included in nuclear negotiations.)

    How that trade-off works depends entirely upon your view of the Iranian government. If you think that Iran will not cheat on the deal, then the deal is good. On the other hand, if you think that Iran has hegemonic aspirations for the Middle East, then the deal is bad. It neither prevents an Iranian bomb, merely delays it, nor does it prevent Iranian malfeasance. On the contrary, the deal will materially increase the capacity of Iran to interfere in regional wars.

    At the heart of the dispute, those on the right take the Iranian leaders at their words. When conservatives hear Iran repeat “Death to America,” the ignorant rubes suspect that the public language of the government matches its private sentiment. The ignorant conservatives remember the Iranian supplied IEDs, the Iranian terrorism, the Iranian activity in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq. And, with that history in mind, the conservatives conclude that this is a country hostile to the US which will take advantage of concessions, without a corresponding commitment to cease nuclear weapon development.

    On the other hand, those in favor of the deal must repeat, over and over again, that the plain language and past actions of the Iranian leadership bears no relation to Iranian government policy or philosophy.

    Maybe as a follow-up article, you can address this problem.

    • Magpie (History)

      Iran could make HEU weapons right now. They could have done it years ago. If they can enrich to 4%, they can enrich to 90%. This deal makes it *harder* to make a warhead. If they didn’t get nukes by now, what on earth makes people think they’ll do it tomorrow?

      It’s interesting that you’ll take them at their word when it suits you (death to America), but not when it doesn’t (we’re not trying to build nuclear weapons). I don’t especially trust anything that anyone says, least of all politicians playing it up for the local crowd. Let’s put the words aside and look at the facts:

      The Iranian people have every reason to hate America. Proclamations of “death to America” have precisely the same result as “god bless America” – that is, zero. What has Iran actually done to attack America? Bupkis. As part of the Shiite / Russian axis, sure, they’ve supported Hezbollah, but as the last remaining stable and peaceful Shiite nation, as a previous target of US regime change and terrible, bloody war at the hands of a (then) US proxy, and as a named member of the axis of evil, don’t you think they’ve got perfectly reasonable and rational cause to be worried about their future survival?

      And however much you may hate Hezbollah, of all the terrorists lined up against America they’re about the least of your worries. In fact, they’ve been pretty successful in killing IS over in Syria recently. Curse you, Iranian proxies! We wanted to kill those black-flag-waving idjits ourselves!

      The fact is, Iran could get a bomb if they wanted. They could do it right now. Should they choose to so do, you have no practical way of stopping them short of bloody war. US power is not infinite. Demanding that your government act as if it is omnipotent can only lead to disaster. The FACT is, Iran *has not built a nuclear weapon*. Take the flowery words out, ditch the politicians: that’s the fact. They could have, and they didn’t. This deal now makes it harder for them to do that, AND decreases their motivation to do so. Words aside: how on earth is this a bad thing?

      If Iran has no hope of getting out of sanctions, if the US squeezes and squeezes, what possible conclusion could the leadership of Iran come to, but that the US intends to push until they get an unconditional surrender. How can you expect a proud nation – ANY nation with the means to fight back – to simply roll over and die? Why on earth would they? If they judge that their only realistic means of long term survival is to get a nuclear deterrent, then THAT IS WHAT THEY WILL DO.

      The Iranian leadership saw Saddam get dragged out of his hole and killed. They saw Gaddafi’s forces bombed, his family hunted down. They’ve watched the Syrian rebellion get international support, and they saw the Taliban smashed on the flimsiest pretext. Why would they go quietly into the night? What human would? And if the US is set on crushing them, destabilising them, overthrowing their government, well, build a nuke and suddenly it’s too dangerous to do that. See a nuclear armed country descend into rebellion and chaos? Unthinkable.

      This deal makes it rational for Iran to remain without a weapon. A “better deal” is precisely what would make it rational for them to get one.

      How is that “better”?

    • YankeeCynic (History)

      It’s worth noting that much of what you’re saying could be said about the Soviet Union. Their proxies killed our proxies. They supplied the weapons that killed our Soldiers (Korea, Vietnam, elsewhere). Their rhetoric involved plenty of promises to bring swift destruction down upon the United States and NATO should the time come. And yet we made deals with them. Deals that helped stabilize the world situation. What makes Iran any different?

      Additionally, Iran could say the same thing about us. We’re negotiating, even though members of our government are shouting that they’ll do all they can to block an agreement and push for sanctions, a military options, or a combination of the two. In that case, why should Iranian conservatives, when hearing that Iran must be contained and their nuclear program bombed, do the ignorant rubes not take them for their word? Because they recognize that there is a difference between rhetoric vs reality, and that while there are factions at work that openly say they want to destroy or contain Iran that factional politics informs the likelihood of that threat.

  4. John Hallam (History)

    I only wish the amount of time spent on Iran could be matched by spending time and attention on the two governments that actually have the continuing capability (which they’ve had since the 1960s) to make the planet uninhabitable in less than an hour. I refer of course to the US itself and to Russia, who have 90% of all the worlds nuclear warheads. The elephant in the room.

    Instead inordinate time and attention is given to ensuring that a country that currently has zero warheads and who say they intend to keep it that way,….has zero warheads.

    Gawd, I should know – I’ve spent inordinate time myself, collating the masses of Iran material and the relative trickle of US and Russia material. (Full credit to ACW by the way for the previous item on DoD legalities.)

    See my article at:


    • Magpie (History)

      I get what you’re saying, but I’m coming around to the idea that the threat of little players like Iran getting nuclear weapons (plus whoever else in the region might decide they need them, too) has a similar sort of risk profile to the big existing players. They’re not going to end the world, but the chances of accident or stupidity or instability leading to an attack increases. That is, the consequences of use are far less, but the likelihood is much greater.

      Imagine if Syria or Libya had been sitting on nuclear weapons. What are the chances that some group of nut-bags would have gotten their hands on one? What are the chances a city or two might get eradicated? Hell, even if they didn’t, the suspicion that some crazies might have a bomb would scare half the planet. Fire up the duck-and-cover ads again?

      So imagine if Iran, and consequently Saudi Arabia, had nuclear weapons. How much would you bet that both governments will still be peacefully in power in 50 years? Would you bet the population of Tel Aviv? If the next Arab Spring comes around to the KSA, or the Persian We-Don’t-Want-Bastards-In-Charge-Anymore comes to Iran, and they have nukes, what do we do then? Help kill the students rallying in the streets?

      God help us if we actually supported democratic reform in those countries. “Oh, you sparked a rebellion and “rebel” forces shot a nuke at our enemy’s city? Your proxies, your fault, and you can’t prove we did it.”

      IMO, that’s why Iran is obliged to hold on to enough capability to rush for a bomb of their own, if they feel they have to. If the US or other enemies push too hard and destabilise them, they can rush out a bomb, and suddenly it is massively in everyone’s interests to help stabilise the existing regime by almost any means. Game-theory back a step, and we see that it’s in everyone’s interests *right now* to maintain the status quo – or at least not to unbalance it too much.

      Let the old guard die in their beds. They were clever enough to win this round. We’ll see how it goes next generation.

  5. Sean (History)

    Mordechai Vanunu pretty much confirmed Israel has thermonuclear weapons. I can see why Iran wants weapons. So it’s simply a question of why sanctions have not been applied to them for the last 20+ years. I agree that Iran could certainly have produced and tested a nuclear weapon or a boosted nuclear weapon. The fact that they have not suggests a non-confrontational stance.

    • Magpie (History)

      Well actually, they were confrontational to have pushed as far as they did. It’s just never been in their interests to go further than a “virtual” bomb. Gratifyingly, everything has gone the way I expected. See comments here, for example: http://krepon.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/3959/interim-deal-with-iran

      Make no mistake, Iran chose this fight, but they were smart and disciplined and they won it. They have a virtual bomb – the agreement leaves them enough cascades for that, as it was always going to do, because the alternative to a virtual bomb is a real one (or a bloody war), and that benefits no-one but a small cadre of right wing politicians in the US and Israel. A virtual bomb has most of the deterrent effect of a real one, without the unpleasant side-effects.

      The U.S. and friends won the fight, too – that is, they took the least bad option. Well done, them! Rational transactions and mutual benefits ahoy.

      And what would be the point of sanctions on Israel after the fact? Fairness doesn’t come into it. What benefit would there be? None, which is why it didn’t happen. So much rationality going on! It almost gives a feller faith in humanity…

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      It is unclear whether Iran “wants” actual nukes, though it is clear they have gone out of their way acquire knowledge, centrifuges, and other material to construct nukes, at least as a future option. It may be possible to bomb the centrifuges and some of the other material, but it is a poor option relative to making a deal.

      Possession of nukes by Israel does not create any self-defense “need” for Iran to acquire its own bomb in response. Basically, if Iran does not threaten Israel in a BIG way, there is no way Israel will be nuking Iran. Iran’s confrontational style (including support of terrorists) is unnerving to Israel, but not an existential threat to Israel.

      As to why Israel has not been sanctioned, that was a Nixon decision way back when the Soviet Union was seen as the major threat. We did sanction India and Pakistan after openly testing their bombs in 1998, but only for three years. These three countries never signed the NPT, but Iran did sign. Iran is being called to account for not living up to its end of the bargain.

  6. FlamesInTheDesert (History)