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.