Bibi and the bogeyman: What drives opposition is not the details of a nuclear deal, but Iran’s rehabilitation

This week’s controversial Congressional address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke little new ground on the bitter policy divide between Washington and its closest ally in the Middle East on the issue of a nuclear deal with Iran. In a speech punctuated by standing ovations and rhetorical excess, Netanyahu enumerated the evils of the Iranian leadership, which he likened to both Nazi Germany and ISIS, and demanded maximalist terms for any accord with Tehran.

While he delved into the apparent terms of the emerging framework for a deal, Netanyahu’s broader focus underscored the fact that the debate is not really about the deal at all. What animates opposition to a nuclear agreement with Iran is the absolute resistance to Iran’s rehabilitation.

Disputes over the deal have raged since the beginning of the breakthrough diplomacy with Iran. The November 2013 interim accord and the negotiations that have ensued in its wake to devise a comprehensive bargain provoked an intense backlash from Netanyahu, as well as a number of other U.S. allies in the region.

Serious and perfectly reasonable differences exist over the specific terms that have apparently been proffered by Washington and its five international partners (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China). The duration of the proposed accord, the formula for constraining Iran’s production and stockpiling Iran’s production of nuclear fuel, the arrangements for transparency and verification, the treatment of outstanding concerns about Iran’s past nuclear work and a host of other important technicalities that will constitute the resolution of a decade-plus-long impasse all deserve close scrutiny.

But the specifics of any agreement are not the true source of the consternation for Netanyahu or other opponents of a deal. Instead, the outrage is grounded in the conviction that a comprehensive agreement will usher in Iran’s unfettered rehabilitation in spite of its continuing malfeasance at home and within the region. The real message of Netanyahu’s speech was to sound an alarm that already resonates with many, well beyond his own base of support.

As the prime minister admonished in his speech, letting Tehran out of the penalty box without conclusively terminating its nuclear ambitions, its support for malign actors and policies across the Middle East, or its official mistreatment of its own people will be seen as a green light to all these abuses and a gift to a leadership that has been a menace since its inception. Doing so at a time when Iran can claim unprecedented influence in far-flung Arab capitals — including Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sanaa, as Netanyahu took care to emphasize — and as its paramilitary campaign against ISIS reinvigorates Iraq’s vicious Shia militias further enflames the suspicions of many in the region and on Capitol Hill.

To drive home this concern, Netanyahu deployed hyperbole so absurd that it would only be taken seriously in the kind of chamber that humors senators throwing snowballs as a mechanism for debating scientific evidence of climate change. Others have already effectively debunked the prime minister’s outright falsehoods on the implications of a deal for Iran’s nuclear capabilities, his cynical equivalence between Iran’s actions and aims and those of the apocalyptic terror group ISIS, as well as his farcical assertion that Iran is “gobbling up the nations” of the Middle East on a “march of conquest, subjugation, and terror.”

A nuclear deal is a path to Iran’s redemption

However, even more fundamental than the powerful polemics was the overarching peril articulated by Netanyahu – the expectation that a nuclear deal means the end of Iran’s political, diplomatic and economic isolation and its re-embrace by the international community as a ‘normal’ state. On its face, this foreboding is not wholly false: any comprehensive deal on the nuclear issue will result in an end to the unprecedented economic and diplomatic pressure that has been applied against Tehran over the course of the past five years.

However the bargain is structured, sanctions relief will be gradual, piecemeal, conditional, and almost certainly slower than Iran’s population appreciates. The comprehensive American embargo will remain intact so long as the range of other concerns about Iranian policy persists, and so Iran’s marketplace will stay mostly off-limits for U.S.-based businesses. Beyond that, the measures targeting Tehran’s financial system will also likely prove enduring, in part because their meticulous implementation has institutionalized very robust compliance (even over-compliance) within the international financial and business community. So, long after the ink is dry on any nuclear deal, a great many restrictions, both regulated and habituated, will persist.

Still, a comprehensive deal will mark a conclusive and probably irrevocable conclusion to the severe multilateral sanctions regime that has been erected since 2010 and, by extension, Tehran’s pariah status. It will almost surely lead to the disbanding of some and eventually all United Nations-mandated sanctions, and even more importantly, the lifting of restrictions imposed by a variety of significant trade partners of Iran, especially the energy and financial measures imposed by the European Union. After a deal, the Islamic Republic will be back in business, its standing as an investment destination restored and its place in the community of nations effectively normalized. This is, of course, precisely what Tehran is seeking and what Hassan Rouhani was elected to the presidency to accomplish — redemption. An imperfect, incomplete redemption, but a new beginning nonetheless.

But redemption is precisely what Netanyahu and other opponents of an Iranian deal are determined to prevent. They appreciate that once the current network of multilateral sanctions is unraveled, it will never be reinstated, absent some extraordinary provocation by Tehran. The presumption, then, is that the threat posed by Iran’s regional ambitions will never be successfully blunted. For Netanyahu — and for many in the American policy community — that is an unacceptable outcome. They believe, as the prime minister declared on Tuesday, that “If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.”

Why additional sanctions are not the answer to the Iran problem

That is not an unreasonable expectation. But here’s the rub: even without a nuclear deal, that sanctions regime is bound to fray. Its current severity stands in sharp contrast to the preceding three decades, when America’s economic penalties against Tehran were opposed and even undermined by the rest of the world, including our closest allies. The recent construction of an effective network of multilateral pressure was the product of a unique historical moment — when the abomination of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s exultant anti-Semitism compounded the concerns about Iran’s recalcitrance on the nuclear file and its shocking repression of millions of its own citizens who went to the streets in 2009 demanding fair elections. It was facilitated by unusual trends in the global energy market, where new technologies spawned supply growth that outstripped stabilizing demand. As a result, the world could afford to forgo a substantial chunk of Iran’s exports without experiencing a meaningful blowback effect on oil prices.

While the supply-demand imbalance has only deepened, sending oil prices crashing over the past six months, the other conditions that facilitated the multilateral consensus on pressuring Tehran have faded. For much of the rest of the world, the election of Hassan Rouhani and the subsequent Iranian embrace of a more constructive negotiating posture decisively transformed the context. The perception that an end to this long, tortuous impasse is within reach fuels a readiness to move on with it already, and the prospect of revived access to Iran’s potentially lucrative marketplace tempts even our most reliable allies in Europe and Asia.

Netanyahu proclaimed that the alternative to the current deal would be “a much better deal” — one that eliminates more of Iran’s extant nuclear capabilities, curtails its regional influence and support for terrorist organizations, and halts its rhetorical hate-mongering toward Israel.

This would surely be a preferable outcome. Unfortunately, however, it is just as surely not a viable one. For better or worse, the rest of the world does not operate quite like the U.S. Congress, and with the exception of a few autocratic American allies in the Arab world, the reception to Netanyahu’s maximalist requirements for a deal is not shared much beyond Capitol Hill.

Washington can try to up the ante with new sanctions on Iran, and the reach and weight of the U.S. financial system may even prompt some additional compliance for a time.
But what has enabled our strategy to succeed is the strength of a multilateral coalition. New measures now will certainly erode that consensus. Our partners in the P5+1 signed onto a process whose focus was restricted — quite deliberately by the Bush administration — to the nuclear issue. This was the only viable construct for the talks, since the six countries have very different approaches to the other areas of American concerns, such as regional security and human rights. Until now, the only party that sought to broaden the conversation was Tehran, solely as a means of avoiding nuclear concessions.

Significant stakeholders, like Russia and China, oppose sanctions based on their own experience as targets of U.S. economic pressure, and they have demonstrated no inclination to jeopardize their diplomatic relationship or trade with Tehran in hopes of altering Iran’s deadly support for Syria or civilizing its rhetoric on Israel. Most of the international community sees no interest in perpetual pressure on Tehran, and there is at least some reason to believe that reintegrating Iran into the world marketplace and diplomatic community can be helpful in moderating its other problematic policies.

We are, as Netanyahu said, at a “fateful crossroads.” But the paths available are not the ones the prime minister would prefer. Washington can choose to continue to lead the broadest and most effective coalition toward an imperfect but useful resolution of our most urgent concerns about Iran, or we can strike out on our own in hopes of a bigger reward. Members of Congress should consider the relative achievements of these divergent approaches as they deliberate proposed legislation that would dictate America’s course.