All eyes were on Indiana and Arkansas. Mike Huckabee thundered that gay-rights groups won’t stop until there are no churches left in America – he’s an excitable fellow. Tom Cotton, the young brand-new senator from Texas, told the gay folks in Arkansas to count their blessings. In Arkansas at least they don’t “hang you for the crime of being gay” – you know, like they do in Iran. His message was you perverts have it good here – or something. Ted Cruz insisted that banning anti-gay discrimination in public services is like forcing a rabbi to eat pork – but in both states the legislatures were busy rewriting their religious freedom restoration acts. Those acts effectively allowed any business or association or individual, or any provider of any public anything, to refuse goods and services to all, even if the law prohibited that, if they had deeply held religious beliefs that God told them to shun and punish sinners, and not serve them pizza. The legislatures in both states were busily rewriting their religious freedom restoration acts to say they didn’t quite mean that, but it wasn’t going well, because they had meant that. But they had to do something. Major corporations were threatening to leave their states, and conventions were being cancelled left and right, and big concerts, and sporting events. Indiana and Arkansas faced the prospect of becoming obscure and forgotten backwaters, where nothing ever happens and no one ever drops in to spend a little money. No, wait. That’s the situation now. They didn’t want things to get worse.
The tale of those two religious freedom restoration acts still outraged America, one way or the other, depending on your politics. No one was paying attention to Switzerland. Nothing ever happens in Switzerland. Sure, those negotiations with Iran had being going on there, about their nuclear program, and there was talk that there’d be a big announcement coming, but those negotiations had been going on forever. Each big announcement had been an announcement that the talks hadn’t broken down, yet, and all parties had agreed to talk a bit more. “We’re still working on it” isn’t big news. It isn’t even news. This announcement would be more of the same.
Oops. This one wasn’t more of the same:
Iran and the United States, along with five other world powers, announced on Thursday a surprisingly specific and comprehensive understanding on limiting Tehran’s nuclear program for the next 15 years, though they left several specific issues to a final agreement in June.
After two years of negotiations, capped by eight tumultuous days and nights of talks that appeared on the brink of breakdown several times, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, announced the plan, which, if carried out, would keep Iran’s nuclear facilities open under strict production limits, and which holds the potential of reordering America’s relationship with a country that has been an avowed adversary for 35 years.
We have what looks like a deal:
Mr. Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz, a nuclear scientist who played a crucial role in the last stages of the negotiations, said the pact satisfied their primary goal of ensuring that Iran, if it decided to, could not race for a nuclear weapon in less than a year, although those constraints against “breakout” would be in effect only for the first decade of the accord.
President Obama, for whom remaking the American relationship with Iran has been a central objective since his 2008 campaign, stepped into the Rose Garden moments later to celebrate what he called “a historic understanding with Iran.” He warned Republicans in Congress that if they tried to impose new sanctions to undermine the effort, the United States would be blamed for a diplomatic failure.
He insisted that the deal “cuts off every pathway” for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon and establishes the most intrusive inspection system in history. “If Iran cheats,” he said, “the world will know it.”
That’s the agreement, to be signed, sealed and delivered by the end of June:
Under the accord, Iran agreed to cut the number of operating centrifuges it has by two-thirds, to 5,060, all of them first-generation, and to cut its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium from around 10,000 kilograms to 300 for 15 years. An American description of the deal also referred to inspections “anywhere in the country” that could “investigate suspicious sites or allegations of a covert enrichment facility.” But in a briefing, American officials talked about setting up a mechanism to resolve disputes that has not been explained in any detail.
There are a few details to work out, but now everyone knows what’s coming, for better or worse:
In a move not seen since before the Iranian revolution in 1979, and to the surprise of many in both countries, Iranian government broadcasters aired Mr. Obama’s comments live. In parts of Tehran, people cheered and honked car horns as they began to contemplate a life without sanctions on oil and financial transactions, though the issue of when the sanctions are to be removed looms as one of the potential obstacles to a final agreement on June 30.
If that hurdle and the problem of ridding Iran of its huge nuclear fuel stockpile can be fully resolved in the next three months, the preliminary accord will still need to be sold to Iran’s neighbors. The prospect of a deal has inflamed Israel and the Gulf states, alarmed by Iranian muscle-flexing in the Middle East, most recently in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
That problem will have to be addressed:
There is so much concern that Mr. Obama, in a phone call today to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, invited Arab leaders to Camp David this spring to discuss Iran and the turmoil in the region. Analysts have long been worried that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states might mount their own nuclear programs if they decide that Iran is being allowed to retain too much of its nuclear infrastructure.
In a telephone call from Air Force One on Thursday afternoon, Mr. Obama told Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that while the deal was not final, it “represents significant progress towards a lasting, comprehensive solution that cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb and verifiably ensures the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program going forward,” according to an account of the conversation from the White House.
Mr. Netanyahu, a strong critic of the deal, was apparently not mollified, and released a statement saying, “A deal based on this framework would threaten the survival of Israel.”
No one is entirely happy, but resolving one problem always leads to others, and nothing is perfect:
The 5,060 centrifuges is a far higher figure than the administration originally envisioned, when it argued that Iran could possess only a few hundred. But in the final negotiations, Mr. Moniz and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, the MIT-educated head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, agreed that Iran would drastically cut its stockpile of nuclear fuel, from about eight tons to a little over 600 pounds. The giant underground enrichment site at Fordo, which Israeli and some American officials fear is impervious to bombing, would be partly converted to advanced nuclear research and the production of medical isotopes. About two thirds of its centrifuges would be removed. Eventually, foreign scientists would be present. It would have no fissile material that could be used to make a bomb.
But perhaps the most important compromise came in a lengthy battle over whether Iran would be allowed to conduct research and development on advanced centrifuges, which are far more efficient than current models. The Iranians won the right to research, but not to use more modern machines for production for the next 10 years.
Obama sees this as a good deal, and at the New Yorker site, Amy Davidson offers this:
If it is good – and that will depend on getting the final settlement done and signed between now and June – it will be in large part because the President avoided the temptations of resentment and self-pity. And Republicans in Congress will have failed to thwart it because they embraced them. The GOP did everything that it could to scuttle this deal. Forty-seven Republican senators sent a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader that will go down in the annals of diplomatic sabotage, and made it harder for American negotiators to demand a deal that the White House itself would find acceptable. They did so even though their ostensible goal – keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear power – was the same as the President’s. It would have been easy, on Tuesday, when the original deadline for the talks expired, for the American negotiators to walk away – and for Obama to blame it all on the Republicans and just say that they had made it too difficult to reach an agreement. He’s done that in the past. (Guantánamo) But the President told John Kerry – whose efforts he referred to in his statement on Thursday as “tireless, and I mean tireless” – to keep going, and Kerry and his fellow diplomats seem to have come up with something that, while not perfect, does look pretty good.
Just look at the details:
Iran gets something for all this: the removal of American and international sanctions when it becomes clear – and inspectors verify – that it is keeping its side of the bargain. How to ascertain exactly when this happens may be a point still to be negotiated. But a robust part of the deal, from an American perspective, is its “snap-back” provisions. Sanctions will not actually be removed but suspended, and what the fact-sheet refers to as their “architecture” will remain in place for quick reactivation if necessary. (“And while it is always a possibility that Iran may try to cheat on the deal in the future, this framework of inspections and transparency makes it far more likely that we’ll know about it if they try to cheat,” Obama said.) Also, the non-nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, for things like its support of terrorism, will remain.
That raises an objection to the deal: Iran will still be Iran.
Yeah, there is that, but so be it:
“Iran is not going to simply dismantle its program because we demand it to do so,” the President said. “That’s not how the world works. And that’s not what history shows us.” Is that cynicism or optimism? The world is not a place where you can simply look tough and your enemies will crumble; but it is a place where, with some work and some luck, you can try to get something done.
Yes, you can, but you can also expect this:
Sen. Mark Kirk blasted the nuclear deal with Iran on Thursday, saying the Obama administration’s diplomacy was worse than Britain’s attempts to appease Nazi Germany and predicting Israel would soon be pulled into a war with Iran.
The Illinois Republican trashed a deal struck by global powers with Tehran, concluding in a phone interview “that Neville Chamberlain got a lot of more out of Hitler than Wendy Sherman got out of Iran,” a reference to a top State Department negotiator on the deal.
But Kirk wasn’t done, forecasting that lifting any more sanctions on Iran “dooms the Middle East to yet another war,” one that Israel will have to clean up, perhaps in a nuclear fashion.
“We should be a reviewing presence to see how this unfolds,” Kirk said of Congress’ role, adding: “Which we all know is going to end with a mushroom cloud somewhere near Tehran.”
Kirk’s office called to clarify that Kirk was referring to a nuclear test in Iran.
Asked if he could find anything to like in the deal, Kirk responded: “No.”
Kirk is not alone, and a few days earlier, Paul Waldman addressed this sort of thinking:
Many of us roll our eyes and poke fun at endless Hitler analogies, but in this case their use is extremely revealing. If you believe that the negotiations with Iran are the equivalent of those in Munich in 1938, what you’re basically saying is that war with Iran is inevitable, so we might as well get started on it right away. After all, it isn’t as though, had Chamberlain left Munich without an agreement, Hitler would have retired and gone back to painting. The whole point of the “appeasement” argument is that the enemy cannot be appeased from his expansionist aims, and the only choice is to wage war.
That’s what Iran hawks are arguing: We shouldn’t pussyfoot around trying to find a diplomatic solution to this problem when there’s going to be a war no matter what.
Waldman later added this:
You can call this clear-eyed realism, or you can call it terrifying lunacy. But it would be nice if they would admit that war is indeed what they’re advocating. Up until now, only a few conservatives have been willing to say so. I’d like to hear their argument, and not a bunch of “all options should be on the table” hedging, but a real case for why launching a war on Iran really is the best of the available options.
I’d like to think that after the disaster of Iraq, the American people would hear that debate and emphatically say that war with Iran is such a spectacularly stupid idea that no one who advocates it should get within a mile of the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon. But maybe they wouldn’t – maybe enough dark warnings about how the Iranians will soon turn Omaha and Augusta and Topeka to wastelands of rubble would be enough to get the war juices flowing once again. After all, it has been a whole twelve years since we started a war, and given the history of the last few decades we’re way past due. So who’s the brave Republican willing to run on a war platform? I’m sure a couple of them will step up.
Some will, and Digby (Heather Parton) adds this:
If you could sit down with a bunch of these guys over bourbon and cigars the end game would likely be occupation for the entire Middle East. (After all, John McCain said outright that he’d be happy if we stayed in Iraq for a hundred years.)
The misplaced WWII analogies all stem from the notion that America single-handedly won the war (not true) and that our occupation after the war, which continues in some respects even today with military bases stationed all over Europe, is something that can and should be replicated in other areas where it’s our job to keep a lid on bad things happening.
Right, but Digby thinks these guys never figured out that we are not even remotely capable of doing that:
WWII did not prove the American military to be populated with comic book heroes with supernatural powers who swept in and mowed down the enemy. That’s Hollywood, it’s not reality. And, in any case, it should be the very last thing on earth anyone should ever want to repeat. It was a horror of epic proportions.
But the dreams of All American omnipotence and glory are hardwired into the right and very strong in the culture at large. And it’s dangerous as hell. Everyone should want to negotiate peace as the default position. If there’s anything on earth that should be avoided unless there is absolutely no other choice, it’s war. You’d think that would be common sense but this rather silly belief in America’s godlike military power is leading a whole lot of people to take us into some very dangerous territory.
Hey, it’s what we do, but Howard LaFranchi sees Obama not buying it:
The framework of the Iran nuclear deal announced Thursday has set up the biggest test yet of President Obama’s central foreign policy proposition: that dialogue and diplomacy are the best means of resolving differences with America’s adversaries.
Mr. Obama has already tested his premise with Myanmar, and more recently with Cuba, but their significance pales in comparison with the effort to block Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb through diplomacy and to return Iran “to the community of nations,” as the president says.
That’s the plan:
With Iran, the success of Obama’s vision will be determined not just by its success in reining in Tehran’s nuclear ambition, but also by whether the dialogue that has been absent for nearly four decades can nudge Iran away from years of terrorism and destabilizing activity in the Middle East.
For their part, Obama’s critics worry that his concerns for his presidential legacy have led to acceptance of too low a bar for the Iranians to cross. Underlying the deal is a naïve conviction that countries like Iran yearn to be part of the international community, they say.
But Thursday was Obama’s moment to make his case for relying on diplomacy to tackle tough challenges like Iran.
This is the real test case, long in the works:
Since Obama first extended America’s hand to Iran in his 2009 inaugural address, critics have attacked the approach for placing too much emphasis on understanding enemies while ignoring the needs and concerns of friends and allies. If anything, that criticism has grown.
Administration officials say the president is keenly aware of the doubts and fears the overture to Iran has caused among America’s partners in the region. They say a key part of the effort to win US and global approval of the nuclear agreement will be reassuring those friends that engaging Iran does not mean abandoning them.
“We do understand that our partners in the region, the Gulf countries and our friend and ally in Israel, have very profound concerns about Iran’s support of terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the region,” says a senior administration official.
As part of an effort to reassure those partners, Obama announced that he will invite the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia, to meet with him later this spring at Camp David.
He also said he would be speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone Thursday night and assuring him that “there is no daylight between us when it comes to our support for Israel’s security.”
Still, the plan scares everyone:
In his Rose Garden comments, Obama addressed the Iranian people directly, “saying what I have said from the beginning of my presidency,” that “we are ready to engage you on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Those words may be well received on the streets of Tehran. The harder sell is more likely to be with the American people and a dubious Congress.
In Foreign Policy, David Kenner gets specific about all the fears:
Depending on which side of the conflict the regional leaders stand on, they either hope or fear that Iran will be enriched by the lifting of economic sanctions and empowered by its integration as a respected member of the international order. … But Obama will face a challenge in winning over the Gulf States, whose interests are arrayed against Iran across the Middle East, notably in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. In a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in October, Obama seemed to confirm Gulf states’ fears that a nuclear deal would lead to a broader regional rapprochement between the United States and Iran, perhaps including a hint of support for Tehran’s proxies in Syria: According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama linked cooperation against the Islamic State with an agreement and “sought to assuage Iran’s concerns about the future of its close ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.”
That may be the reason that Saudi Arabia is raising a regional army to take care of things in Yemen:
“The timing of the Yemeni operation was basically to send a clear message to the Iranians, and to the United States, that the region is going to stand against Iran’s expansionist policy,” said Mustafa Alani, director of the national security and terrorism studies department at the Gulf Research Center.
The intervention in Yemen is only one example of how Saudi Arabia has played a more aggressive role in the Middle East. Islamist rebels backed by Saudi Arabia recently captured the northern Syrian provincial capital of Idlib from the Assad regime – even as Washington moves slowly on its plan to train and arm a Syrian rebel force.
“We see the beginning of a new policy, where Saudi interest is basically more important than U.S. objections or with Security Council resolutions,” said Alani. “Basically, we are adopting the Iranian style and the Israeli style: When it comes to your national interest, you go ahead and do it.”
Everyone does it:
Tehran’s allies in the Middle East – from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to its many allies in Baghdad – hope that Iran would be strengthened by the lifting of sanctions and its integration into the international system. As far back as 2013, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said, “Our side will be stronger locally, regionally, and internationally” in the event of a nuclear deal.
“Obviously, Hezbollah leaders are rooting for a lifting of the sanctions against Iran,” said Kamal Wazne, a Lebanese political analyst close to the party. “They felt in the first place that these sanctions were unjust, and the lifting of the sanctions will allow Iran to engage the international community and give it a better position at the international arena.”
And then there’s the matter of who eventually gets the bomb:
Egypt, for instance, has long made the case that the region should be a nuclear-free zone – a policy meant to pressure Israel into giving up its nuclear weapons, but which has also constrained the development of nuclear weapons programs elsewhere in the Arab world. If Arab leaders believe that the current outlines of the deal leave Iran a path to construct a nuclear weapon, “the thinking will be, ‘why don’t we have the same status?'” said Abdel Moneim Said Aly, the director of Cairo’s al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “That will mean developing all the capabilities for uranium enrichment that Iran got.”
Resolving one problem always leads to others:
All this has led to the perception, in certain corners, that power in the Middle East is up for grabs in a way that it has never been before.
Perhaps that is inevitable, but Slate’s Fred Kaplan sees only good stuff here:
The main reason is that it is a profoundly good deal; there has never been a nuclear deal, with any country, that is so comprehensively restrictive. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the U.S. Congress to demand “a better deal,” but his definition of such a deal – one that bans uranium enrichment, dismantles all its facilities, and insists on a drastic change in Iran’s foreign policy – is unattainable, and, more to the point, he knows it.
Yes, this deal wouldn’t keep Iran from being a menace in Middle East politics, or from repressing its own people. But no arms control deal can aspire to do that. The U.S.-Soviet strategic arms treaties, signed throughout the Cold War, didn’t require the Soviet Union to disavow communism, end its support of Third World insurgencies, or institute Jeffersonian democracy – but the deals were still very useful. They capped, and in the later years reversed, the nuclear arms race; and they provided a forum for diplomacy, a cooling-off of the distrust and hatred, at a time when no other issues could have done so.
The opposition is being irrational:
Netanyahu’s unlikely allies in opposing the deal – the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Sunni Muslim oligarchies – simply don’t want a deal at all. They fear above all an ascendant Shiite Iran, especially an Iran enriched by the flow of money that comes with the end of sanctions and the resumption of global investment and trade. They would, in fact, prefer an Iran that aspires to build nuclear weapons – an Iran that blatantly looks like a threat – to an Iran that might be stalled in the nuclear realm (and thus might seem more peaceful) but in fact still pursues its expansionist aims.
This fear is understandable, from their point of view, but the United States shouldn’t adopt the Sunnis’ perspective – shouldn’t get drawn into their war with the Shiites – if it means forgoing the opportunity of a truly historic, potentially transformative deal. Even from the Sunnis’ point of view, which would they prefer: an expansionist Iran with nuclear weapons or without?
Those are the choices, and you take what you can get:
If there is any chance that Iran might modify its stance over the next decade or so, might even become a “normal” nation, these talks might usher in this change. Tehran’s rulers have long justified their alliance with terrorists and their repressive domestic policies by raising alarms about the threat from demonic America. If the Iranian people see their own leaders meeting and smiling with American diplomats, even negotiating deals, trusting them enough to dismantle huge pieces of the nation’s cherished nuclear program, then the chants of “Down with America” might soon lose their potency – and the regime’s political legitimacy, the rationale for its existence, could gradually evaporate.
But even if there is no regime change, this deal is far better than no deal, and there is no deal on the table but this one, and it’s a lot better than anyone would have predicted just a few days ago.
That was the surprise. And really, there was nothing all that surprising in Indiana and Arkansas. Perhaps all those folks should head over to Switzerland to work things out.