Although some important issues still need to be clarified in the final agreement, President Obama should be congratulated for getting a better-than-expected framework agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program. Obama is right that negotiation is the only game in town. Even the Israelis and hawkish Republicans have quit pushing nonviable military options as much, but offer no credible alternative to what Obama has been doing. Startling are the concessions that Iran has already made. Even Republican analysts like Richard Haass, Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, have been pleasantly surprised.
Of course, Israel and hardline Republican complain that no Iranian nuclear facilities have been shut down and remain ever suspicious that the unfriendly Iran still wants to get a nuclear weapon. This strident view neglects the fact that Iran has a right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to a nuclear program used for peaceful purposes and that the United States began the long downhill slide in U.S.-Iranian relations with the CIA’s overthrow in 1953 of an elected Iranian government to reinstate the brutal Shah as dictator. Iran has not always behaved well either, but it does live in a rough neighborhood, with the already nuclear Israel (likely possessing 200 to 400 nuclear weapons) and hostile Sunni Arab states in close proximity. Also, U.S. intelligence believed that Iran had not yet made a decision to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran, a theocratic state based on Shi’ite Islam, might even have some religious qualms about getting such a weapon.
If inspections under any new agreement failed to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, even in that worse case, Iran would have only a few warheads compared to the vast Israeli stockpile. And even if an Iran nuclear bomb triggered a drive by Egypt, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia to get the same, nuclear weapons have contributed to the reduction of conventional cross-border conflicts in the post-World War II world. Furthermore, Iran does not have missiles that can hit the United States, even if they could shrink a nuclear warhead to fit such projectiles. So in essence, Iran is a threat to the Middle East region and perhaps Europe, not the United States. Similarly, the small, comparatively weak groups that Iran sponsors, Hamas and Hezbollath, focus their efforts against Israel, not the United States. Furthermore, the now-wealthy Israel has had its major enemies neutralized – Syria by civil war and Egypt through the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979 – yet still receives more than $3 billion in US aid each year, most of it military assistance. Thus, even the threat of a nuclear Iran should be put in perspective.
In sum, praise for Obama in reaching a good framework deal with Iran should be unqualified. However, Obama has erred in two ways. He has grudgingly endorsed only a non-binding vote in Congress on any final deal, so that it wouldn’t impair his ability to implement it. But why have a meaningless vote in Congress? Under the Constitution, the only agreements with foreign countries that are allowed are treaties that are approved by a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Obama’s statement that, “My hope is that we can find something that allows Congress to express itself but does not encroach on traditional presidential prerogatives…” His use of the word “prerogatives” is telling because it harkens back to the “king’s prerogatives” that helped drive the American Revolution. That’s why the US Constitution doesn’t mention executive agreements that can skirt a legitimate, binding vote in Congress. Hopefully, the Republicans controlling Congress will not once again abdicate their constitutional power and let a president get away with this un-American rule by fiat. A nuclear Iran would be better than the continued flagrant violation of the Constitution.
Obama’s second error is to redouble his support for Israeli security and to “formalize” aid to Arab states threatened by Iran. If the Iran nuclear deal is what Obama says it is, a way to effectively limit Iran’s nuclear program, which it does seem to be, these other nations should be safer. Here, Obama is really preparing the American people that he may need to buy off these countries to win their support for the deal by using taxpayer dollars to increase aid to them. President Jimmy Carter did the same thing with Israel and Egypt to get the peace treaty of 1979.
In the end, however, Israel and the Arab allies are as scared of a power realignment in the Middle East as they are of an Iranian nuclear weapon. They have benefited over the years from US hostility toward Iran, a potentially powerful country in the region. Obama’s statement that he is “hoping that we can conclude this diplomatic arrangement and that it ushers in a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations” strikes fear in their hearts that their relations with the United States will be diminished. If that is the case, so be it. The United States shares some interests with Iran – for example, revulsion at the Sunni ISIS group’s brutal antics in Syria and Iraq. The United States needs to do what is in its best interest, and having better relations with a powerful and previously hostile Iran is now included. The best analogy might be the anti-communist Richard Nixon’s much praised opening to Communist China in 1971.
However, Obama must make this diplomatic opening in a constitutional way by going over the heads of hawks in Congress and directly winning overwhelming public support for a surprisingly good nuclear deal – thus, compelling reluctant members of Congress to vote for it or suffer politically.