September 22, 2019

The Iranian deal panic gap

Last week, Foreign Policy magazine released a poll of 921 scholars of international relations at colleges and universities across the United States. By a 7-to-1 margin, the scholars agreed that the proposed deal with Iran will “have a positive impact on regional stability.”

Around the same time, the Huffington Post’s Charlotte Alfred interviewed Israel’s four leading Iran analysts on their opinion of the proposed framework for a deal negotiated between Iran and the P5 +1 countries. These are Farsi-speaking scholars with deep expertise in the intricacies of Iranian-Israeli relations, and, as Israelis, are hyper-aware of the risks a nuclear Iran poses. Their consensus: The deal, though not without risks, is a positive development.

Their responses are best summed up in this quote from the Iranian-born Meir Javedanfar of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, who is the editor of the Iran-Israel Observer. “It’s not a perfect draft,” Javedanfar said,  “but it’s a good start.”

This is a (simplified) way of explaining how three of the leading experts — if not the leading experts — on Iranian nuclear negotiations view the deal thus far. Gary Samore, who was President Barack Obama’s original negotiator with Iran; David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security; and Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, all see the framework as a possible way forward, though far from perfect.  Albright and Samore are a bit more sanguine than Heinonen, but none is talking in the do-or-die tones of the pundits.  

Heinonen, in an interview with The Times of Israel , raised an especially astute point: Considering the degree of complexity in the deal’s technical details, why not push back the agreement deadline of June 30 by a few weeks or so?  It won’t surprise me if Obama does just that.

My favorite expert quote?  This one, from nonproliferation scholar Jeffrey Lewis: “OK, I admit it,” Lewis wrote in Foreign Policy, “I thought this framework was going to suck. Actually, it’s not bad.” 

In much the same vein as these experts, even the definitive critique of the agreement, written by former U.S. Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz for the Wall Street Journal, did not call on the president to scrap the progress made thus far. 

When you drill down beyond their critique to their actual, “So, now what?” it comes down to this:

“The follow-on negotiations must carefully address a number of key issues,” they wrote, “The ability to resolve these and similar issues should determine the decision over whether or when the U.S. might still walk away from the negotiations.”

This is all very different from what we are hearing from much of Congress, and many commentators. Politicians like Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton and  House Speaker John Boehner are speaking in apocalyptic tones, saying the deal must be scrapped in its entirety. Mainstream Jewish leaders are backing Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s effort to insert a “poison pill” amendment into a bipartisan bill calling for congressional oversight of the deal that will require Iran to recognize Israel. And even the centrist Times of Israel editor David Horowitz and center-left columnist Ari Shavit oppose the framework in apoplectic terms. 

“What should I do when Washington might once again make another terrible historic mistake?” Shavit wrote in Politico.

So, on the one hand, you have all these experts lined up saying, “Proceed, but with caution,” while, on the other hand, you have a loud chorus of politicians, pundits and activists saying, “Kill it, or we all die.” And all this week I’ve been wondering: Why?

I’m not sure how to explain the panic gap between people who are truly expert in the field of Iran, nukes and international relations, and the “anti” crowd. But I think it’s likely that there are two debates going on simultaneously. One is on how best to keep Iran nuke free for the longest possible time. The other is about President Obama: whether he knows what he’s doing, whether he “has Israel’s back,” whether he can be trusted. 

The former debate is strategic and technical, with no perfect answers. The latter debate, about Obama, is mostly political and often visceral. One debate focuses on the elements of the deal. The other debate inevitably focuses on the character of the man making the deal.  

You can see the contrails of the latter debate wafting through many criticisms of the deal. These pundits and politicians quickly leave behind a discussion of the deal and turn their attention to the president. They try to frame the deal as part of a larger pattern of what they see as his weaknesses, or as part of some imagined “pivot to Iran,” or — and this is really common — as a desperate attempt to secure his legacy because rescuing the economy from a depression, passing a landmark law for universal health care, ending a worthless decades-long Cuba policy and bringing Iran to the negotiating table through crippling sanctions only makes a guy so-so.

I believe Obama’s motives are much more straightforward: I think he wants to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The deal needs work, no question. Congress should play a constructive role in making it better. So should Israel. But listen, if you will, to the experts: This path, not without pitfalls, is the smartest one to follow.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.