FPI Bulletin: On Iran, “No Deal Is Better Than A Bad Deal”

July 14, 2015

In the early days of U.S. negotiations with Iran, President Obama declared, “No deal is better than a bad deal.”  Secretary of State John Kerry said exactly the same thing no fewer than four times. On this key point, there was strong bipartisan agreement. Thus, “no deal is better than a bad deal” became a concise statement of the idea that the U.S. should pursue vigorous diplomacy, but not at the expense of its national security.

Now that a deal is in hand, these eight words should become the fundamental principle governing public debate about the agreement announced this morning. If no deal is better than a bad deal, then rejecting a bad deal remains a viable option when Congress begins its deliberations, in accordance with the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act

By threatening preemptively to veto any resolution of disapproval, President Obama has made it clear that he will not respect congressional determinations of whether this is a good deal or a bad one, unless there is a two-thirds majority in both chambers that forces his hand. Yet as the President said this morning, “precisely because the stakes are so high, this is not the time for politics or posturing.” Ignoring a majority of Congress would be just that.

President Obama has also begun to frame the potential rejection of this deal as even worse than living with its imperfections. In effect, he is saying that no deal is actually worse than a bad one. “No deal means no lasting constraints on Iran’s nuclear program,” he now says. Why is that so? If Congress determines that this is a bad deal, why not return to the negotiating table and work towards a better one?

The President also says, “Without this deal, there is no scenario where the world joins us in sanctioning Iran until it completely dismantles its nuclear program.” The notion of a complete dismantling may no longer be achievable because of concessions this administration has already made. Yet why is there no scenario in which American partners in Europe and elsewhere work together with Washington to secure a good deal by imposing even tougher sanctions on Iran?

Mr. Obama's dismissal of such scenarios may prove a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the President of the United States declares that the world will never again come together to confront Iran with truly punishing sanctions, he is effectively giving permission to allies and adversaries alike to dispense with further efforts. In effect, he is creating a situation in which the current deal is the only possible deal, and the United States must embrace the only possible deal, because “No deal means a greater chance of more war in the Middle East.”

In reality, the deal that has been reached may fuel Iran’s appetite for terrorism and conflict in the Middle East. The deal should be debated on the merits, full stop.

Until there is time to digest the full 159-page document released this morning, a final assessment would be premature. At first glance, it already seems that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—as the deal is formally known—creates many reasons for concern.

Whereas the President insists that “this deal is not built on trust, it is built on verification,” it apparently empowers Iran to create lengthy delays when UN inspectors request access to sensitive sites. The deal lays out a process for resolving disputes about its implementation, yet the Joint Commission empanelled to review such disputes has no clear means to enforce its decisions.

Meanwhile, instead of the “phased” sanctions relief the President announced this morning, the deal provides full and instantaneous relief for Iran as soon as it complies with its initial obligations, as verified by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). There is a provision designed to let sanctions “snap back” into place if Iran is non-compliant, yet the mechanism for doing so remains untried and possibly impracticable.

What is certain is that almost all meaningful restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will expire after 10 or 15 years. At that point, Iran will become what even former Obama administration officials such as Ambassador Dennis Ross describe as a “threshold nuclear state.”

The question now facing Congress and the American people is whether these terms are acceptable. It should be a genuine question with no preset answer, because no deal truly is better than a bad deal.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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