November 20, 2019

Hillary: Own the Iran deal

Laugh all you want, but the only Republican presidential candidate to have put forth a realistic position on the Iran nuclear deal is Donald Trump.    

While his blustery co-stars — I mean, opponents — have said they would rip up the deal on day one, Trump said he would do no such thing.

“I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance,” he said, injecting some realism and nuance into a debate that has been all but black-and-white.

As the debate drags on, the arguments on both sides have grown louder, angrier and more predictable. Beyond a simple no or yes, I have found the most interesting voices to be those who say “Yes, and,” “No, but” and “No, and.”

The “Yes, and” people think the best and least-risky way forward is to approve the deal and enter into security arrangements with Israel and others to constrain or, as The Donald says, “police” Iran. The “No, but” people see a way to reject the deal temporarily, then go back and fix its weaknesses, unilaterally or through negotiations. The “No, and” people number just two: Isaac Herzog and Tsipi Livni. Initially, they opposed the deal along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But this week, their position changed: They still hate the deal, but they wouldn’t fight it like Bibi would; they’d work with the Obama administration to help Israel maintain its security in light of it.

I am firmly in the “Yes, and” camp — a camp whose most effective spokesperson shouldn’t be Donald Trump. It should be Hillary Clinton. 

The “No, but” camp has an effective spokesman. It is the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Robert Satloff, whose influential column in The Atlantic outlined a way a “no” vote would provide the president with time — and motivation — to strengthen the deal. “ ‘No’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘no, never.’ It also can also mean ‘not now, not this way,’ ”Satloff wrote. 

I wrote a series of challenges to Satloff’s points, and he was kind enough to respond to them, one by one. His bottom line: If Congress overrides the president’s veto, there is a chance that the United States and its allies can maintain pressure on Iran until weaknesses in the deal are strengthened.  

“If Senators and Congressmen believe the deal provides, as President Obama says, a fool-proof, ‘permanent’ solution to the Iran nuclear problem, they should vote for it,” Satloff wrote. “If, however, Senators and Congressmen are concerned about the flaws in the agreement and are hungry for the administration to take sensible measures to fix them, I believe the limited downside risk of voting no is greatly exceeded by the benefits of ‘a better deal.’ ”

Many experts at Satloff’s level believe his analysis is too optimistic. They predict that if Congress overrides the veto, Iran will go ahead and fulfill its end of the deal and, in six to nine months, will get plenty of sanctioned money anyway. Russia and China and other countries will go their merry way, cutting their own deals with Iran. Iranian hardliners will push out the moderates. More centrifuges will start spinning.   

“The agreement has strengths and weaknesses,” nuclear expert Gary Samore said in an interview with Vox’s Max Fisher. “But then you weigh those strengths and weaknesses against the alternative. And I’m skeptical that we can reject this agreement and negotiate a substantially better deal within any kind of reasonable time frame. Over a period of years, we might be able to reassemble the sanctions pressure and build up enough pain so that Iran returns to the bargaining table, but at that point they’re going to have another 20,000 centrifuges! And I don’t know that we could get a substantially better deal.”

Who is Gary Samore? In addition to being executive director for research of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, he has been working on the Iran nuclear program since the Reagan administration. Until last week, he was president of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), for years the leading advocacy group against Iran’s nukes. Then he came out in support of the deal and stepped down from UANI, which opposes it. That’s big. That’s like Texas’ Republican Sen. Ted Cruz saying the scientists are right about climate change. Samore is definitely a “Yes, and.”

That leaves Hillary Clinton as the most important voice you haven’t heard from on the Iran deal. Yes, she has thrown her support behind it, and yes she has offered up a tepid defense here and there, but she has yet to really sign on as its second-most-important defender.

This is what Hillary can do to save the deal: First, she should make clear that approving the deal as it stands presents the least-risky option for keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Then she should say that, on day one of her presidency, she will take all necessary actions to make the deal’s provisions stronger, its enforcement more likely and Israel more secure. That she will commit every resource to holding Iran to its end of the deal. That she will stand resolutely by voices of moderation and democracy in Iran. That she will hold Iran’s leaders accountable for every dollar of Iran’s sanctions bonanza that is used for terror, anywhere on the globe.    

These actions are achievable unilaterally, or with willing partners like Israel and America’s other allies. They won’t scare Iran off, but will put it on notice. The next president will be this deal’s No. 1 enforcement officer, and Hillary can give those who are leery the confidence that she’s the one to walk the beat.


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