Seeing Past the Theatrics on the Iran Debate

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Seeing Past the Theatrics on the Iran Debate

Seeing Past the Theatrics on the Iran Debate

July 30, 2015

The NSN Daily Update will be on hiatus during the congressional August recess and return in September.

Hearings on Capitol Hill yesterday on the Iran nuclear talks produced serious testimony by Administration witnesses but also enabled considerable uninformed showboating by opponents of a diplomatic agreement with Iran. Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and David Cohen, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, presented testimony on the Hill yesterday to update Congress on the status of the nuclear negotiations with Iran. They noted that the talks in Vienna, which have been extended until November 24, have been productive: significant compromises appear within reach, and as Sherman noted in her prepared statement, “under the [Joint Plan of Action], instead of becoming more dangerous over time, Iran’s nuclear activities have been more constrained, more closely inspected, and more transparent. This is the first true freeze in Iran’s nuclear program in nearly a decade.” Cohen noted that not only does the structure of the sanctions regime against Iran remain in place, but the economic relief Iran has seen under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action has been less than anticipated. There is a constructive role for Congress to play as the negotiations continue, but the hearings also demonstrated a troubling lack of seriousness and political maturity from critics of diplomacy.

Don’t confuse political grandstanding for real, fact-based analysis. Several members of Congress at the hearings were clearly more interested in finding a soapbox for farcical tirades than actually forming sound policy. Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) used his time to conflate Iran’s nuclear program with other issues outside the scope of the negotiations and claim that Iran’s negotiators are too irrational to come to an agreement; similarly, Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AR) lectured Sherman and Cohen about an animal fable and the inherent “nature” of Iran’s leadership. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) showed up to the hearing just long enough to call the ongoing and productive negotiations “a dangerous national security failure” and mischaracterize the talks, but did not stay to ask any questions. This grandstanding and statements like Rubio’s inaccurate hyperbolic assertion that “the only thing worse than war is crazy people with a nuclear weapon that can reach the United States on a rocket” are not only out of touch with the state of Iran’s nuclear program and the scope of the negotiations, but demonstrative of the political immaturity and troubling lack of seriousness with which critics of the talks approach this issue. [Randy Weber and Tom Cotton, 7/29/14. Marco Rubio, 7/29/14]

Congress can play a constructive role by supporting the negotiations and continuing to discuss the terms of a potential deal with the diplomatic team – but efforts to legislate new sanctions, though well-intentioned, would be counterproductive at this stage. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) asked Sherman about the prospect of passing new sanctions that would automatically be triggered into effect if a comprehensive agreement is not reached by November 24, but as Sherman pointed out, in the long-term this could weaken international cooperation to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. “We believe that if this comprehensive agreement does not work, it should be because Iran cannot make the commitments it needs to,” she told Schneider. “We don’t want there to be any other basis, any other excuse; we don’t want them to say ‘We couldn’t get there because Congress pushed our hardliners to the wall,’ whatever kind of narrative they put on the table. We want it to be crystal clear to the world that we tried diplomacy as far as we could take it and Iran could not do what it needed to do because, if we do that, then the entire world will stay together in the enforcement, not only of the existing sanctions, but in sanctions to come.” Sherman also noted that passing sanctions now to be triggered later is unnecessary because Iran is aware of the consequences of unsuccessful negotiations: “There is no doubt in my mind that Iran understands the power and prerogatives of the United States Congress. The actions that you have taken, the actions that you would take – and if we cannot reach a comprehensive agreement, and we are sure that we cannot reach a comprehensive agreement, we have stated publicly as an Administration that we would expect there to be more sanctions.” [Wendy Sherman, 7/29/14]

A good deal is still possible. Both Iranian and P5+1 diplomats have expressed optimism about the potential to reach an agreement that would verifiably prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Announcing the extension of the talks earlier this month, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif noted that the extension “build[s] on the political momentum created by the adoption and smooth implementation by both sides of the Joint Plan of Action” and that the talks have achieved “tangible progress on some of the issues,” though “significant gaps on some core issues…will require more time and effort.” The four-month extension is the best chance to try to bridge those remaining gaps. “With so much at stake and a good deal within reach it makes sense to extend the talks and keep pushing toward an agreement,” said NSN Executive Director John Bradshaw. “A few more months is not a lot to ask to achieve an agreement that could have long-term positive impacts by ensuring that Iran does not build nuclear weapons and America does not get sucked into another war in the Middle East.” [Catherine Ashton and Mohammad Javad Zarif, 7/19/14. John Bradshaw, 7/19/14]

Wendy Sherman and David Cohen testify on the Iran nuclear talks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee [C-Span, 7/29/14]

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Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 11.26.23 AMPhoto Credit: Secretary Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif Sit Down For Second Day of Nuclear Talks in Vienna. [State Department, 7/14/14]