The Iran deal is a done deal — but the debate on Iran must go on

The latest tally of support for the Iran nuclear deal in the U.S. Senate effectively ends any prospect that Congress could scuttle the agreement signed in July between Tehran, Washington, and five other world powers. This will not end the intense national debate over the deal, nor should it.

Even if the Iran deal is now a done deal, the debate that it has provoked remains of profound importance. Not simply because congressional rules could provide for some surprises along route to a finale, or because Republican critics continue to plot legal roadblocks to the administration’s implementation of the agreement.

Rather, the debate matters because the country remains deeply divided on the question of Iran — one survey shows that public support for the nuclear deal has actually fallen in the past six weeks — and the interlocking series of strategic and humanitarian challenges confronting us today in the Middle East. And in a democratic society, argumentation and the exchange of ideas is essential both for solving our toughest problems and for sustaining a system that relies on an informed and engaged electorate.

The requirement to bring the nuclear deal before the Congress was one that the White House assiduously sought to avoid — understandably, given Republican control of both houses and the fervent domestic and international politicking around the issue of Iran. I have heard some of administration’s allies express frustration, even discomfort, at the degradation of having to submit Obama’s diplomatic triumph with Iran to the indignity of congressional review. Now that victory is nigh, some advocates of the agreement may be tempted to begin raising rhetorical ‘mission accomplished’ signs.

Indulging that temptation would be a grave mistake. The still-unfinished debate on the Iran nuclear deal has advanced our vital national interest in serious deliberation of consequential foreign policy decisions, and such a debate should be engaged and encouraged rather than silenced. Washington is already too balkanized between warring political camps, whose champions play to their most committed constituencies rather than build bridges across the partisan divide.

As my Brookings colleague Leon Wieseltier wrote in a brilliant essay published last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of The New Republic:

“An aversion to controversy is an aversion to democracy. Since all the views do not go together, and since the stakes in the validity of the respective views are very high, a free people should be a quarrelsome people. The quarrels of an open society are evidence of extraordinary philosophical and political development. They are the proof of our progress. The quarrels are not the problem, they are the solution.

Are our fights nasty? Not as nasty as their absence would be.”

Yesterday, Brookings hosted Senator John McCain (R-AZ) for the second Brookings Debate, a new initiative that brings together leading U.S. officials and Brookings scholars to cross swords on important policy issues in an Oxford-style debate. Sen. McCain was joined by Wieseltier, who is Brookings’ Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy, in arguing that Congress should disapprove the deal. Bruce Riedel, senior fellow and director of Brookings’ Intelligence Project, and I advocated for Congress to approve the deal.

CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett moderated the discussion, which he graciously described as a “vibrant” exchange of views that traversed a wide range of territory (and differences) related to U.S. policy toward Iran and the broader Middle East.

And that is exactly as it should be. So let the debate over Iran rage. And watch our Brookings Debate on the nuclear deal in its entirety here.