Bruce Levine's picture

    Iran Negotiations and a Path Forward

    I have written and commented quite a bit about my reservations about the Iran negotiations, and I just want to shift gears here and offer what I hope are taken as good faith observations and recommendations for moving forward.  I address what I believe are the three principal issues that must be resolved: (1) whether any deal negotiated is a good deal; (2) what the president should show in order to establish whether the deal is good; and (3) the role of the Congress.   Obviously, framing the issues, while helpful in my view, does not mask the complexity of that which is found beneath each of them.

    1. The Standard of Review -- It is my understanding that the standard for reviewing any deal that may be negotiated is whether it is a good deal or, put another way, that no deal is better than a bad deal.  This I understand to be the standard set by the president himself.  I understand that others might think a different standard should apply, such as for example, one based on the notion any deal is better than no deal. There may be merit to that standard, but to my knowledge that is not the standard that the president and his team have set.

    2. The President's Burden of Proof -- Whatever ambiguity may remain with respect to the respective roles of Congress and the UNSC, the Administration states that any agreement will be a non-binding executive action that is non-binding in the sense that it would not require Senate ratification as a treaty would but which can also be changed by subsequent congressional and/or executive action.

    In any event, as an executive action, it is the executive that should bear the burden of demonstrating that what may be negotiated is a "good deal".  Some might argue, for example, that this burden should be an easy one for the president to satisfy because obviously any deal is better than the only other choice of going to war.  But if that is the case, then the president needs to explain why we must choose between any deal he negotiates -- and war.  In that respect, the president should explain how, if the existing international sanctions regime is dismantled or partially so (depending on the deal), accepting the deal leaves us with more peaceful options than we would otherwise have were we to reject the deal.  

    I have pointed out in the recent past that the contours of the deal that is being negotiated would be materially different than what the president had repeatedly stated he would negotiate.  Briefly stated, for example, in 2012 there was little if any daylight between the positions of both President Obama and Governor Romney -- the only difference, according to the president himself -- was that the president favored negotiations before going to war. 

    I understand that circumstances change, parties change, new ideas emerge, and so I accept that there could be and presumably are genuinely good reasons for the president to accept a deal, if one is accepted, that is materially different than what he was calling for in 2012.  The point is, however, that as part of the president's burden to explain why any deal he negotiates is a good one, he should explain why any such deal is so different than what he had called for in the past -- assuming, of course, that any deal will reflect the parameters we now know about from the public record away from the negotiating table.

    Finally, these negotiations are not solely about protecting Israel, and are not the product of pressure by Americans who allegedly vote on one issue.  And it's not about donors  (president's words).  President Obama has consistently stated that these nuclear negotiations are in the national security interest of the United States of America, but he has also stated that he considers a nuclear Iran to be a grave threat to Israel and its Arab neighbors, and that a strategy of containment would not be viable because it would encourage proliferation among Iran's Sunni neighbors.  And, of course, it is the UN Security Council that, to my knowledge, has consistently and at least since 2006 held firm to its position that is consistent with what the president also stated in 2012.  In short, this is not just about Bibi Netanyahu and his Republican allies in Congress.  

    I admire even when I vehemently disagree with those who believe that the Iran issue is overstated and who have reason in their hearts to take a position that reflects that.  I think it is also important to bear in mind that  here, it is not an interest group (ethnic or otherwise) that has defined the importance of these negotiations.   I have read and heard suggestions to the contrary, and it is not true and it does not help. In any event, I would expect the president  to explain how this deal is good in light of the national and global threat he understands to be posed by a nuclear Iran.  

    3.  Role of Congress -- Here there is bad news and good news.  The bad news is that Congress and the president have utterly failed to take care of a fundamental matter in bargaining, and that in the world of Washington relates to congressional oversight/ratification.  For obvious reasons, but important ones nonetheless, including what is owed by us as bargaining partners with Iran, it is indefensible in my opinion that our leadership failed to work out the role that Congress would be playing in the event of a deal at the beginning of negotiations. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of clarity on the issue concerning the effect, as a matter of international law, of any UNSC resolution on any non-binding executive agreement that may be negotiated.

    The problem, of course, has just been made so much worse by the type of conduct reflected in the bonehead letter signed by 47 Republican senators.  That letter has just stirred up so much anger in and among good people, and for sound reasons.  But I and many Americans neither wrote nor endorsed that letter, and we would never do so.  And while many of us may also be donors, I for one and I would suspect many other Americans like me never asked for anything in return from the president when we twice supported his election with vigor.

    And so, without underestimating a hostile Republican Senate, I do see good news in the fact that there are Democrats in the Senate  who understand the importance of accommodating the respective interests of the Congress and the president in being satisfied that they have played an appropriate role in a deal that may come to be.  That is the good news, combined with the fact that it doesn't look as if Congress will vote on legislation opposed by the president until mid-April at the earliest.  There is time for cooler heads to prevail and I submit the person with the chief responsibility is the guy I voted for twice, and would have voted for without regard to what he said about Iran in 2012 (because I have always trusted him, though I admit that trust is being tested now).  

    Given the above, I believe that President Obama should explain with candor, and for Congress to come to terms with what the president tells them, with respect to the impact of UNSC resolutions on congressional authority going forward.  Some of you have pointed out and correctly so that we are part of an international coalition that will quickly respond to any UNSC resolution to dismantle the international sanctions regimen that took years to put in place.  The president needs to explain this and accept that many people will not be pleased.  But we should all understand, unless I'm misunderstanding things, that: (a) it takes a long time to put together an international sanction regimen as powerful as the one that the president believes is what brought Iran to the table in the first place; and (b) as many of you know already, American sanctions can hurt Iran, and maybe significantly so, but American sanctions without international support are unlikely to have the desired impact.

    Finally, all of this assumes there will be no extension to allow for this first "framework"  phase of the negotiations to continue beyond the current deadline at the end of March (with the second supposedly confined to "technical" matters (a dangerous concept in bargaining but it is for another time)** to be completed this summer).  If I'm at the table, under the circumstances I would want to extend things in a way that gives everyone extra time to resolve the oversight issue, and which also gives Iran something in writing that allows its negotiating team, again assuming they would need something like this, to "convince" the hard-liners that they got  something for the extension.  Tricky yes, but I have said on more than one occasion that in negotiations, like life, the road to heaven is often paved with the extension. 

    My two cents.  

    ** The second "technical" phase that would follow the negotiation of a "framework" agreement presumes clarity among and between the negotiating partners, such that "technical" matters are just that.  But oftentimes in bargaining, for both good faith and bad faith reasons, leaving "technical" matters for a later date often pushes off what in fact is  lack of clarity in the framework agreement,  Indeed, the prospect of having a second phase can cause a party to rest too soon based on a dangerous assumption that "everything can be worked out later".  This is what happens in labor negotiations all of the time -- it's that time at 2 a.m. when everyone wants to just go home but the lawyers are trying to get everything down on paper.  This is something we should watch for and which the negotiators are presumably well aware of -- but sometimes awareness, standing alone, is meaningless when the spirit of the deal takes over those at the table.  I guess I'm old enough to say that I have learned this simple truth the hard way.

    Bruce S. Levine

     I tweet on Twitter @levine_bruce with occasional irrational outbursts (kidding. . .sort of :)) and lots of good retweets on labor stuff and foreign policy and whatever.  Lots of stuff on the internets to share.


    I'm not that concerned about Iran getting the bomb, since we've seen that deterrence works. Iran did sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty though.

    It's interesting to note that the treaty binds the signatories not only to nuclear non-proliferation, but to nuclear disarmament. It also prohibits the use of force against signatories.

    Deterrence can certainly work as a strategy where appropriate, I agree.  But, Aaron, I assume you would also agree that the decision of the international community to pursue sanctions leading to and during negotiations, was made notwithstanding the existence of the NPT.  But, of course, one could reasonably take the position that the NPT should be sufficient to "deter" Iran in the future.  However, the president has in the past rejected "containment" as a viable strategy with respect to Iran.  Perhaps "containment" and "deterrence" as you mean it are not the same things?  Thanks for commenting Aaron.

    From the link above (Obama interview on March 2, 2012 on containment of Iran threat):

    GOLDBERG: Let me flip this entirely around and ask: Why is containment not your policy? In the sense that we contained the Soviet Union, North Korea --

    PRESIDENT OBAMA: It's for the reason I described -- because you're talking about the most volatile region in the world. It will not be tolerable to a number of states in that region for Iran to have a nuclear weapon and them not to have a nuclear weapon. Iran is known to sponsor terrorist organizations, so the threat of proliferation becomes that much more severe. 
    The only analogous situation is North Korea. We have applied a lot of pressure on North Korea as well and, in fact, today found them willing to suspend some of their nuclear activities and missile testing and come back to the table. But North Korea is even more isolated, and certainly less capable of shaping the environment [around it] than Iran is. And so the dangers of an Iran getting nuclear weapons that then leads to a free-for-all in the Middle East is something that I think would be very dangerous for the world.

    GOLDBERG: Do you see accidental nuclear escalation as an issue?
    PRESIDENT OBAMA: Absolutely. Look, the fact is, I don't think any of it would be accidental. I think it would be very intentional. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I won't name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, "We are going to start a program, and we will have nuclear weapons." And at that point, the prospect for miscalculation in a region that has that many tensions and fissures is profound. You essentially then duplicate the challenges of India and Pakistan fivefold or tenfold.

    I won't name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, "We are going to start a program, and we will have nuclear weapons."

    I would like him to name those names. Let's pretend we are talking about the ability to build a bomb within the next ten years which is probably going to be the term limit of any del with Iran. Could Turkey, a NATO member and our nominal ally do it? probably. Egypt? I would guess yes. Syria? Iraq? No way. We have solved any high-tech tremendously expensive, broad-based- infra structure required  proliferation problem in those countries for quite a while. Oman? Yemen? No, zero chance. Sudan, Eretrea, Sumalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nairobi, Uganda? I much doubt it. Saudi Arabia, another nominal ally? They would be much more likely to just buy a bomb.  Could any of these countries make such a huge investment in capital and resources and do so secretly, thus denying the 'civilized' world to step in and prevent their success? My bet is no.

    Here is an intelligent discussion that gives answers, or opinions, take your choice, about these issues. The downside is that it is an audio interview with no transcript to copy and paste.

    Thanks Lulu, and I hope you understand that I'm not able to look at the BloggingHeads video until later.  But you ask a very good question as I see it, namely whether the proliferation concerns expressed by the president in 2012 have changed, and if so, why?  I think the key thing I take from your question is that it highlights the kinds of questions that the president should be prepared to answer.  As to the unnamed countries referred to by the president, I could only guess, but again I think it would be fair to expect the president to address your point, i.e. which might be that the chances for proliferation are not so great in the Middle East as we sit here today (at least I think that's your point! :)).  Thanks.

    P.S. Just tried to clean up some typos in main post. So sorry there were so many.  Hope -- now that you've read it -- this reads better now.

    Part of what I am trying to point out is that there is a great deal of exaggeration mixed with pure BS that is constantly hawked to push sympathies in one direction or another. All sides do it as far as I can tell. The threat of Middle East proliferation is one of those things, IMO. This is not a case of realistic proliferation concerns changing but rather of the being wrongly interpreted or deliberately mis-stated in the first place, [IMO]. This is an ironic case though. Obama is using that exaggerated possibility of proliferation as one of the reasons that an agreement is important. Those who simply do not want an agreement, to hell with the consequences of no agreement, use that same exaggeration as a reason that Iran must be stopped regardless what it takes to do so while they simultaneously oppose the only peaceful possibility of doing so.  
     One thing pointed out at BHTV is that a threat of military force is a clear violation of international law and, when what is the chance of bombing Iran is the question being asked, the answer is always that,  "all options are on the table", that is a threat of military action. That is a violation of international law.

    I understand and respect that you believe that the Iran threat is overstated.  How does that impact any agreement and related oversight?  Put another way, shouldn't the issue of the overblown nature of the Iranian threat be put on the table to the Administration?  Or is there no need for oversight in your mind because there is no real threat?  Appreciate your sincere beliefs and trying to see how they fit into Iran issue going forward.

    I do not know where else to put this thought, but here goes:

    By sixth or seventh grade, I had been taught that the US and the USSR and France and the UK and Israel had 'the bomb'.

    And then the Chinese had 'the bomb'.

    I had figured, even at that tender age that knowledge is accessible, even without the Rosenbergs.

    And supposedly, many decades later 'we' bribe other nations to stay the hell away from this knowledge.

    Hell, someday Malaysia will have the bomb I assume as well as Brazil and Argentina and....

    We were the first to use this knowledge to destroy two cities, however 'reasonable' that decision was.

    We must keep on keepin on, but ultimately ten or twenty nations will have the ability to use this satanic weapon, or these satanic weapons.

    Excellent choice Richard, thanks, and I understand your long-term perspective.  Thanks.

    There were several assessments of Iran's ability to produce a bomb, and if I recall correctly, all including Mossad's showed the threat to be overblown. Despite Bibi's charming ability to sketch an 1870's style bomb in front of the UN. Perhaps he & Colin can have a talk when this is all over about how it's a great venue to kill your credibility and make a fool of yourself.

    I perfectly understand and really have no reason to take issue with whether Bibi's assessments were overblown over the years.  But that doesn't explain the president's own somber and continued assessment of the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.  And I can be cynical about politicians, including the president, but I cannot believe that he would join in making up an Iranian threat for the purpose of gaining a few votes here and there.  Stranger things have happened, yes, but I don't see it here.

    I cannot believe that he would join in making up an Iranian threat for the purpose of gaining a few votes here and there

    I guess I more see him wanting to be part of the "serious on security" gang - for whatever reasons, I'm never sure - issues with his mother, concerns about Iran, pandering to right-wing voters, etc. - I'm still a bit confused about his motivations. Maybe he just wants to be liked (and doesn't know about Facebook?)

    A bit off-topic, but here's Alan Dershowitz announcing to JPost that we should stop calling the President "Commander-in-Chief".

    Apparently he thinks when it's time for the Christian Rapture over Iran to begin, Boehner or some other Congressional idiot is going to be pushing the hot button for Israel. Guess he doesn't understand how US foreign policy works - remedial tutoring, anyone?

    Seems like Bibi's meltdown is contagious (well, Alan I guess melted down long ago, but no one noticed). Who's next?

    update: sadly it looks like Bibi's going to pre-emptively proclaim victory (one from the Bush/James Baker playbook), and we'll be left with the taste of "Hussein Obama" and "they're busing in Arabs!!!" GetOutTheVote tactics. Wonder how that Palestinian peace issue is going to unfold with the new "0 state" policy.

    Well I'm glad the retired professor is finding something to do with his time, like spending time coming up with an argument about when it's appropriate to refer to the commander-in-chief as commander-in-chief.  My folks would rather go to the flea market.

    The very large role being played by Iran in the fight against ISIS has to be an undercurrent in the negotiations. No one issue exists in a vacuum when it comes to multi-national foreign policy.

    Yes, that's true, but I think the Administration denies that outreach to Iran and Iran's role in combating ISIS in Iraq are part of the negotiations.  On the other hand, Iran's current roleannot be lost on the negotiators. 

    Nor can the risk that Iranian boots on the Iraqi ground might morph into aggressors against the population. There are landmines all over the place, which is why I truly believe that a deal must be reached sooner rather than later. I agree that the focus now is not all- encompassing, for obvious reasons. Yet, for every ounce of accountability and control that is achieved now the better the chances are for future diplomatic options.

    Yet, for every ounce of accountability and control that is achieved now the better the chances are for future diplomatic options.

    I think you make a very fair point, and it is important to keep a grander perspective.  Things are complex in Iraq, no?  

    The very definition of understatement. :-)

    " Things are complex in Iraq, no?" - yes, Marcie Wheeler/Emptywheel today noted the astounding assessment that Iranian weapons in Iraq might mean civilian casualties!!!

    Unlike say the 12 years of civilian casualties we've already witnessed. Perspective is what seems to always go missing.

    Hey, wait that's a shot eh??? 

    As citizens we think our leaders ought to be trying to maximize accountability and other such good things...

    And  Obama would surely agree if he were Citizen Obama today.. But he isn't.

    Instead President Obama's number one objective is to maximize the probability that the almost certainly unsatisfactory Iran agreement  which Kerry brings back , can be put into effect. Whereas instead his number two objective is maximize the probability etc. etc. etc. As are numbers 3 to 99. Nothing that  decreases that probability will be of the least interest....

    They aren't awarding prizes for the most brilliant agreement that never went into effect.Although there's no shortage of contendors..


    Nice to hear from you Flavius and hope you're well.  It is true that the need for confidentiality necessarily clashes with oversight pressures from Congress.  I'm sure the scholars, or a good school of them anyway, would tell us that this is a battle that has been going on since the Constitution (as reflected in the respective duties for the president and Congress in foreign affairs).  And that's true.  I think the point that has driven me most about these negotiations is that I really do believe that the resolution of the oversight issue is critical.

    Once again, with bipartisan support for a bill that the president says he will veto, there is obvious bad in the train wreck sense, but also good because I'm hoping that a few Democrats caught in the middle of this, and also this interesting guy from Maine, the independent Senator King, can help the president come to a resolution.  I know the Republicans stand in the way, and I think that I may have offended some folks by not recognizing the genuine anger and reasons for the inherent distrust of the great swath of the GOP. (I like to say because it is true that this is not my Daddy's Republican Party, and you are one those older folks like me who remember those folk).

    But I digress.  I don't think the president wants to be secretive for the sake of protecting himself politically, I honestly don't.  But I believe, and I believe this particularly because I think the president wants to make some bold moves in that region in the remaining years of his term and wants them to stick, that his supporters  at least consider the importance of reaching out and appropriately informing beyond the president's most loyal base.

    I don't get how you got to "I don't think the president wants to be secretive for the sake of protecting himself politically, I honestly don't."

    I thought Flavius was saying it really doesn't matter what the document that failed to become anything looks like.

    Just had to go back and refresh myself about what I wrote and what Flavius wrote. I agree Flavius was suggesting that in the end the contents of the agreement won't matter, and that may be so, but I guess my response at the time and still is that it remains important to know what's going on, what happened, and why are options are so limited.  And I thought it was also important I guess to explain that in the context of recognizing good faith intention on the part of the president given the complex circumstances of the negotiations.  

    If that doesn't work, let me know, and I'll try to come up with another excuse!

    This article in this morning's Politico addresses the intensive efforts of the White House, so far without success, to reign in Democrats leaning to support for Corker's bill.  It is frustrating that it doesn't appear that any of the Democratic Senators are helping the president out, including Senator Reid who seems not to want to get involved.  To me, that's a mistake, and it shows a lack of leadership by these senators (folks like Senator Cardin from Maryland) to sit back at this time, and leave the president to "work the phones" by himself.  

    Here's why I think Senator Angus King from Maine could be key, however (and I would watch him over the next week):

    All told, senators said, it amounted to a White House moving with dispatch to limit Democratic dissension in the face of a growing revolt from Congress.

    “I would call it serious-minded,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and has discussed the Corker-Menendez bill with administration officials in recent days. He has co-sponsored the plan but has not said how he would vote if the measure heads to the floor imminently. “I think they are concerned.”


    This is a useful, comprehensive overview on the website of the Center for American Progress about the negotiations by Shlomo Brom, a former brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces.  I link to it because it addresses much of what we have been discussing and General Brom, who seems like he knows what he's writing about, agrees with most of you (I sense anyway) who have the sense that the deal that may be agreed upon will be acceptable.  Here are Geneal Brom's recommendation which, among other things addresses the extension point I included in the original post, and also expresses the need to avoid unilateral actions by Congress during the pendency of these sensitive negotations:

    If the parties are close to a political agreement but do not actually reach one before the March 24 deadline, it makes sense to extend this stage of the negotiations and use the remaining time in the agreed full extension. Negotiations should stop only if there are still vast disagreements between the two sides and it does not seem that an agreement will be concluded even with an extension.

    Before and when an agreement is concluded, the United States should take steps to reassure its allies in the Middle East, listen to their security concerns, and address them if possible. These steps should include a discussion of Iranian breakout scenarios and possible U.S. reactions, as well as steps to tighten intelligence cooperation and improve intelligence coverage of Iran and its nuclear program.

    The United States should invest effort in keeping the P5+1 united both during and after the negotiations in order to maximize the probability of success and enable joint action after a potential failure. That implies the United States should be cautious and not take any unilateral steps—including actions taken by the U.S. Congress—during the negotiations without consulting the other P5+1 members.

    No matter what happens, the United States should remain vigilant about the threat Iran continues to pose on other fronts, including its support for dangerous terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, and the United States should work with American allies in the Middle East to contain Iran’s dangerous policies. Although an agreement with Tehran over its nuclear program is necessary, the United States needs to recognize that Iran is not going to change its tack overnight simply because a nuclear agreement was concluded.





    Flash: To ensure bipartisan support, Menendez and Corker push back committee vote on #Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 to April 14.

    — Michael Wilner (@mawilner) March 19, 2015



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