Could Obama Have Made a ‘Better Deal’ With Iran?

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President Obama Holds News Conference On Iran Deal At White House
Photo: Alex Wong/2015 Getty Images

Neoconservative éminence grise Norman Podhoretz has been arguing for many years that bombing Iran is the only way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He made the case privately and publicly, and kept it up. And Podhoretz continues to believe that a military attack is the only way to stop a nuclear Iran. He made the case again in an op-ed yesterday. Podhoretz’s argument is notable because it places him, in a sense, on the side of President Obama, and against virtually all the right. “Either the issue of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is resolved diplomatically through a negotiation or it’s resolved through force, through war,” Obama has said. “Those are — those are the options.”

Conservatives object to what they call a false choice. In his speech before Congress, Benjamin Netanyahu insisted, “The alternative to a bad deal is a much better deal.” It’s obviously impossible to prove, one way or another, whether a hypothetical “better deal” could have been negotiated. But it is possible to study the changing conservative stance for clues. And those clues suggest strongly that the right’s current clamor for a “better deal” reflects something other than a cool-headed analysis of the diplomatic possibilities.

1. Until recently, most conservatives shared Podhoretz’s analysis. “The serious choice now before the Administration is between military strikes and more of the same,” editorialized The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “As the IAEA report makes painfully clear, more of the same means a nuclear Iran, possibly within a year.” Of course, the Journal now calls this a “false political choice.”

What caused the right, in the years since, to change its mind about the utility of negotiation? The Obama administration has had somewhat unexpected success in wrangling international support for sanctions against Iran. It would be strange, though, if these events led conservatives to the conclusion that the administration has ineptly managed its international leverage.

2. The conservative movement, as I pointed out a few months ago, has opposed every major negotiated settlement with an adversary since World War II. This has held true under both Democratic presidents and Republican ones (who have faced their most scorching dissent from the right when they have negotiated deals with enemy states). What’s more, the terms of the indictments have a remarkable consistency: The president has been hoodwinked; he has underestimated the evil of our adversary, who will never carry out his obligations.

A stopped clock may be right twice a day. But the rote quality of conservatives’ anti-negotiation line suggests no set of particulars is likely to win them over.

3. And, indeed, conservatives have built their opposition to the treaty upon some demonstrably false premises. Perhaps the strongest initial criticism of the deal was that the United States would never get its partners to reimpose sanctions if Iran was found to cheat on its terms. Charles Krauthammer scoffed, “[D]oes anyone imagine that Russia and China will reimpose sanctions? Or that the myriad European businesses preparing to join the Iranian gold rush the day the deal is signed will simply turn around and go home?” The Journal editorial page likewise complained, “A committee of the eight signatories would have to vote to restore sanctions. ‘Snap-back’ is a mirage.

But these complaints were factually wrong. There is no vote to reimpose sanctions. In fact, the agreement is structured in such a way that if the United States charges an Iranian violation, the sanctions would go back into effect automatically unless the U.N. Security Council votes to override it. This important concession amounts to perhaps the most imaginative feature of the agreement, giving the United States enormous leverage to enforce the deal’s terms. The critics have never acknowledged or corrected their error, compounding the impression that their gainsaying of the agreement is reflexive.

4. The most curious thing about the current right-wing line is its optimism about Obama’s negotiating leverage. The sanctions depend on cooperation from a sprawling coalition that includes (and must include for its success) some odious regimes. Normally, conservatives take a more skeptical attitude toward the prospect of getting cooperation with the likes of China and Russia, not to mention allies like Western Europe. In the case of Iran, their argument that Obama could have made a better deal requires them to believe that Obama could hold this coalition together longer and on behalf of stricter terms.

The hawks criticizing the Iran agreement have not come to grips with this contradiction in their own thinking. They paint other countries as willing coalition partners in the struggle to contain Iran in one breadth, and as feckless appeasers in the next. A few lines after the Krauthammer passage quoted above about how China, Russia, and Europe will rush to do business with Iran — “does anyone imagine that Russia and China will reimpose sanctions … “ etc. — he mourns how Obama capitulated despite being “backed by the five other major powers.” Backed? If those powers are champing at the bit to end sanctions, then it’s not backed, is it?

This double-minded quality allows the Iran hawks to demand the Obama administration ramp up confrontation with Russia right now, even while demanding he hold on to Russian support for Iran sanctions. It is on display in an Atlantic column attacking the agreement by Leon Wieseltier, who has done some excellent work of which this is not an example. “Even our refusal to offer significant assistance to Ukraine in its genuinely noble struggle against Russian intimidation and invasion was owed in part to our solicitude for the Russian standpoint on Iran,” he writes. He is describing Obama’s perfectly rational calculation that a policy of maximal confrontation against Russia, including the threat of force, would have forfeited Russian cooperation against Iran.

Podhoretz, horrific though his position may be, at least manages internal coherence. “Mr. Obama is right when he dismisses as a nonstarter the kind of ‘better deal’ his critics propose,” he concludes. “Nor, given that the six other parties to the negotiations are eager to do business with Iran, could these stringent conditions be imposed if the U.S. were to walk away without a deal.” Since Podhoretz, like the rest of the Iran hawks, deems Obama’s agreement sadly insufficient, he reaffirms his belief that military strikes offer the only alternative. The “better deal” is a convenient stalking horse for critics who have failed to produce a workable alternative.