What happens if an agreement with Iran emerges from nuclear talks and the Republican Congress forces the U.S. to renege on its part of the bargain? The answer illustrates the dangers of the trending political creed of “American exceptionalism.”
Fortunately, Iranian officials dismissed the importance of the letter by 47 Republican senators warning Iran not to count on U.S. compliance. Iran’s public nonchalance over the effort to torpedo the negotiations contains lessons both about the possible accord and current political thinking in the U.S.
Although technically complicated, the nuclear talks involve simple core issues. The five UN Security Council members plus Germany want to ensure that Iran pursues nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes. International inspectors will monitor Iran’s compliance.
Iran wants the international sanctions on its trade and finance removed and, more broadly, to be readmitted to the comity of nations.
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Obama’s diplomacy deserves credit for building the international coalition that has ratcheted up sanctions to the point where Iran is hurting enough to enter into serious negotiations. The hurt is partly economic, but treatment as an international pariah is also painful.
Suppose the international community and Iran agree, Iran complies, the six begin lifting sanctions, but anti-Iran interests in the U.S. succeed in prohibiting our compliance. In that case Iran achieves its goals and unilateral U.S. sanctions become ineffective. Sanctions, once lifted, will not be reimposed. America – not Iran – will be seen as the nation that bargained in bad faith.
If a post-agreement Iran were able to split the coalition by providing enough information and access to its nuclear programs to satisfy the Europeans, Iran’s natural resources, human capital and geostrategic position will ensure its progress and growing international influence even without the U.S. imprimatur. Iran can surely endure continuing U.S.-only sanctions if small, vulnerable Cuba survived a 50-year embargo.
The narcissism reflected in the unspoken assumption of our leaders that American refusal to lift sanctions will doom any agreement is the latest manifestation of American exceptionalism.
American exceptionalism has recently achieved prominence in conservative political circles as a litmus test for patriotism. Indeed, conservative circles have made it so popular that Steven Colbert satirized it in “America Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t.” But the idea ceases to be overblown political rhetoric and becomes downright dangerous when it leads to self-deception.
The ambiguous phrase served as conversation-stoppers in several different contexts before declarations of belief in American exceptionalism became the latest political ritual for exhibiting patriotism. Sometimes it provides a moral pass when America’s behavior resembles what we condemn in other nations. Thus, notwithstanding our judgment of the human rights records of other states, the grounds of necessity and our suffering on 9/11 led many Americans to accept holding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay for indeterminate sentences without judicial process.
Social scientists sometimes use “American exceptionalism” when the U.S. stands out as an outlier in international comparisons and no compelling account seems to explain why the U.S. differs from the norm. The cost of U.S. health care is an example.
A better basis for American exceptionalism is the fact that being first in any series is a unique position. Because the U.S. pioneered representative democracy to become the first modern democracy or we were the first continent-sized nation to industrialize, no other country can blaze these trails. They can follow the path we laid out, but each will follow the model differently, some improving upon it and others falling short. It is, however, a great mistake to think that a unique position entails privilege.
Manifest destiny, the 19th century version of American exceptionalism, combined both moral self-justification and a mistaken vision of a unique opportunity for the emerging American nation to settle and civilize an entire continent in fulfillment of the purposes of God and democracy.
But for hubris combining all three uses of American exceptionalism nothing beats the Bush administration official who chided journalists for being “fact-based.” Only America, he suggested, is so powerful that we create the facts. That kind of thinking seems to survive among American elites who imagine that without U.S. compliance any Iran nuclear deal will leave Iran isolated and sanctioned.
William Brandon is emeritus MMF Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, where he taught courses on Iran and American exceptionalism.