President Obama says those who oppose the Iran nuclear deal are either ideological or illogical. I support the deal, yet I think this assessment is incorrect and unfair. It diminishes the president’s case for congressional approval.
That case is strong but not overwhelming. Reasonable minds can, and do, differ on whether to back it.
Obama once understood, even celebrated, this gray zone of difficult policy choices. He took pains to recognize and validate the legitimate concerns on the opposite side of nearly any complex debate.
The new Obama, hardened and embittered – the one on display in his American University speech last week – has close to zero tolerance for those who reach contrary conclusions.
Certainly, there is significant reflexive opposition on the part of Republican critics. The gulf between the inflamed political reaction to the deal in the United States and the near-absence of debate among European allies is telling. If Obama is so weak-kneed to support a flawed deal, how to explain the backing of the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party government and Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union?
Certainly, too, there is a group – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, first among them – for whom no imaginable deal with Iran would be acceptable. They define the necessary parameters of an agreement so broadly that there is no chance of Iranian agreement.
At the same time, they insist Iran cannot be trusted. For this crowd, it is heads, no deal/tails, no deal.
So Obama’s exasperation is understandable, but it does not bolster his argument. This Obama will accommodate no uncertainty as to the correct result. “So this deal is not just the best choice among alternatives – this is the strongest nonproliferation agreement ever negotiated,” he said at American University.
This Obama does not grant the legitimacy of his opponents’ concerns; he questions their bona fides in expressing them. “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal,” he observed.
And he misleadingly overstates the case when he contends that the deal “permanently prohibits Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” Yes, in the dictionary sense of “formally forbid by law, rule or other authority.” But not in the actual sense of stopping Iran from obtaining a weapon if it is determined to do so.
The best argument for the deal is the most infuriatingly circular: Support this agreement because at this point no other alternative is or can foreseeably be available.
Indeed, if Congress were to muster the votes needed to override a presidential veto, the result would not be to send the P5-plus-1 back to the negotiating table. The result would be to witness the existing sanctions regime crumble, the United States becoming isolated and weakened as a credible negotiator and the Iranians freed from limitations and therefore far closer to a nuclear weapon.
This argument is compelling, but it leaves no space for those who worry about the billions of dollars freed up for terrorists; who suspect that the negotiators gave in too soon on the timeline for Iran resuming nuclear proliferation; who are concerned that the inspection regime remains too porous or doubt the real-world efficacy of snapback sanctions. You don’t have to be an ideologue to have serious qualms.
In the end, the strongest noncircular argument for the deal is the simplest. Absent a deal, Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon would be just a few months. A military strike would likely set back development three years or so. The deal lasts for 10 to 15 years.
That’s a lot of time bought – despite the risk of cheating and despite the steep price. The more the president makes that case, and the less he insults his critics, the better.
Ruth Marcus is a columnist for The Washington Post.