Elevate the debate: A former U.S. negotiator bridges the partisan divide on the Iran nuclear deal

Since its announcement last month, the Iran nuclear deal has dominated the headlines and the airwaves. This should not be surprising: Iran as a foreign policy issue has long resonated in American politics, and the nuclear accord offers ideal fodder for the dozens of contenders looking to gain advantage in the nascent 2016 presidential race.

In the debate about the deal, the stakes are high: the Obama administration’s principal foreign policy achievement is on the line, as is the global non-proliferation regime, the regional balance of power in the Middle East, the relationship between Washington and its five negotiating partners (which conveniently include America’s most important allies and rivals), and — at least by some accounts — the very survival of the state of Israel.

Unfortunately, however, as passions on both sides have intensified, the debate has devolved into hysteria and hyperbole. Opponents of the agreement have jockeyed to outdo one another in the fervor of their denunciations, to trump their rivals — so to speak — in expressing their outrage over the nuclear accord even if their rhetoric betrays only the haziest familiarity with the actual details of the deal.  

According to the Republican field, the deal is “gasoline on a fire” and “the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president,” that will “lead to destruction in large portions of the world” because “Iran’s on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon” and in the deal, “we got nothing, and Iran gets everything they want.” There’s far worse, of course, in the escalatory spiral of partisan outrage and invective, and the best that the critics can offer in terms of an alternative to the nuclear deal is to assert that “we need a leader who’s gonna stand up and do something about it.”

On the other side, the Obama administration has launched a full-court public relations campaign in defense of the deal that itself has indulged in inaccurate and overblown rhetoric. He’s conflated his own critics at home with Iranian hard-liners — an analogy that not only affronts but also misreads the Iranian political context, since most of the influential conservative power brokers typically described as hard-liners have publically endorsed the agreement.

The centerpiece of the administration’s case for the nuclear agreement is the cascade of evils that would befall the United States if Congress rejects the deal, including “extensive financial hemorrhaging” and the axiomatic prospect of military conflict. President Obama insists that the only alternative to the deal is “some form of war” with Iran. It’s a politically irresistible contention for a war-weary electorate; hence, its appropriation in this excruciatingly puerile pro-deal video featuring a coterie of Hollywood stars.

Unfortunately, it’s also fundamentally erroneous. The administration used the same argument to fend off congressional pressure for new sanctions during the negotiations. Then, as now, I’m convinced that “it is an ugly smear to accuse all those who are skeptical about the current diplomacy or who seek additional pressure on Iran of war-mongering” especially since “the almost certain outcome of any new pressure on Iran will be a less optimal context for negotiations. In other words, diplomacy would probably prevail, but the context and the terms would become substantially inferior to what they are today.”

With their divisive rhetoric, both the administration and its critics are doing the country a profound disservice. The debate over the Iran deal deserves better than a dialogue of the deaf conducted between two sides preaching primarily to their most ardent converts. The Iran nuclear deal may be the first foreign policy decision to generate a serious, sustained dialogue among the American people, well beyond the Washington establishment, since the Iraq war in 2003. As that experience should have reinforced, hype and hubris are totally incompatible with a judicious U.S. foreign policy or successful outcomes for U.S. interests.

This time, Americans deserve a thoughtful discussion about the Iranian threat, the opportunity presented by the deal on the table, the range of viable alternatives to that deal, and a realistic assessment of the consequences.

There is no better voice to lead such a discussion than that of Robert Einhorn, whose long career on nonproliferation issues earned him a central role in crafting the strategy for dealing with Iran at the height of the nuclear crisis. Einhorn has sat across the table from the Iranians in the nuclear talks, and he also helped steward the sanctions that persuaded Tehran to compromise. Although he most recently held a senior Obama administration post, Einhorn served under administrations from both parties during his State Department tenure, and his willingness to prod the administration since leaving in 2013 underscores his objectivity on this issue.

Einhorn’s latest essay, “Debating the Iran Nuclear Deal,” offers a careful analysis of the main areas of contention about the nuclear deal, including: the later years of the deal’s duration; the handling of longstanding concerns about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s past nuclear activities; the timeliness of the inspections regime; the question of Iran’s post-deal access to conventional arms and ballistic missiles; the deal’s approach to sanctions relief; and the consequences of a congressional rejection of the agreement.

The essay provides an essential guide to the core questions that will shape the vote in Congress next month. Even more importantly, Einhorn endeavors to bridge the gap between supporters of the deal and its critics, by outlining an array of steps to address the deal’s perceived weak points with U.S. policies that would “supplement the deal and bolster its overall effectiveness.”

If you read one piece on the Iranian nuclear issue, this should be it. And if the rest of Washington can move beyond polemics and opportunism, Einhorn’s essay should serve as the basis for a sensible bipartisan approach for managing the Iranian nuclear issue beyond the terms of the deal.