- - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION

So in Tuesday’s column, I wrote on my anger about aspects of the Iranian nuclear deal, but I promised to get over it and move on to a stage I called recognition.

I will — soon — but first it turns out I wasn’t alone in my anger. New polls by CNN-ORC and the Pew Research Center in recent days show deep public hostility to the deal: 56 percent in the CNN poll urged outright rejection of President Obama’s deal, while Pew found just 21 percent of those surveyed support the agreement, compared to 49 percent opposed and 30 percent who aren’t sure.

So it wasn’t just me, and I suspect a lot of respondents were similarly put off, not only by the concept of an agreement, but by specific details like the Iranians “self-inspecting” the suspect site at Parchin.

Sometimes you can live with bad details if you’ve got the big idea right. I suspect that that’s the case in our normalization of relations with Cuba. Lots of folks have pointed to the fine print there saying that we didn’t push the Castros hard enough for concessions on human rights and political freedoms. Probably so, but the long-term effects of an island of 11 million repressed people snuggling up to a nation of 320 million democrats with an economy hundreds of times larger than theirs are fairly predictable and positive.

But the Iran deal was going to be a near-run thing either way. The specifics of this deal really matter, and they matter in at least three dimensions.

The first is the core element of the agreement itself, the part that the president is asking us to focus on. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman summarized it this way after 45 minutes with Mr. Obama: “Judge this agreement on whether or not it prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon in the next 10 years.”

There are arguments that the deal is actually insufficient for even that narrowly defined, time-limited task but, frankly, of the three elements I’m going to describe, this is the strongest. Even with the enumerated shortcomings of this element, the impacts of other elements are simply worse.

One of these is time. If the agreement is honored and works as advertised, in 10 years we will have an Iran where deal constraints are sunsetting with an industrial-strength nuclear complex permanently on the threshold of a nuclear weapon. That’s what we negotiated, and that’s actually a more important consideration than what we may or may not have stopped for the deal’s first 10 years.

And then there are the more immediate non-nuclear implications of the agreement — what it means for all the other aspects of Iranian behavior so troubling to us in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and what Iran’s leaders are doing with regard to terrorism, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Iran is doing all that now as an isolated, impoverished, renegade state. What might it do if it were no longer isolated, no longer considered renegade and considerably richer than it is today?

As Vice President Biden might put it, this agreement is a “big no-fooling deal,” and most Americans and most members of Congress oppose it (from my point of view, with good reason).

The House will almost certainly reject the deal; the Senate is iffy since deal opponents lack the 60 votes needed for cloture, but it’s still possible that both chambers will vote no. If they do, the president has promised to veto their rejection. If Congress fails to muster the two-thirds vote to override (as seems likely), we will be left with the most important international agreement since the end of the Cold War looking like Obamacare Redux, except that this bill couldn’t even get approved along straight party lines.

I am no more sanguine about the future even if Congress does somehow manage to override Mr. Obama’s veto. Certainly Congress has the right to do so, and American history is filled with examples of the executive being sent back to amend proposed agreements.

But that would be a heavy lift. Our side of the negotiations with Iran had five other members, and they have already voted their approval of the deal at the U.N. Several have obscenely rushed trade delegations to Tehran in anticipation of an end to international economic sanctions. Our reopening the text for renegotiation would be incredibly irritating to them.

Still, we have a powerful economy to use as a tool of influence. And if this turns out so badly that further action needs to be taken down the road, no one will be turning to Chancellor Angela Merkel for an inventory of the German air force’s long-range bunker-busting capabilities. All eyes will be on us.

So we have a strong position and a strong argument, but I have no faith these are things that this administration would exploit. This administration has a habit of acting like the will of Congress was not controlling, and they have shown no stomach to re-engage the issue, cajole or pressure partners and allies or to reconfront the Iranians. The administration has staked its future on their deal, and their predictions of the dire geopolitical effects of the “hard no” of an overridden veto will sadly all come true because they will not act to make it otherwise.

As already noted, the effects of the “soft no” of the veto being sustained are also bad. The prospect of the deal surviving only through a clever parliamentary maneuver of Congress — being forced to vote against rather than for the proposition — has already put it in the 2017 Inauguration Day crosshairs of a variety of presidential candidates.

That would carry a cost too. Superpowers act most responsibly and effectively when they are consistent and predictable. The Obama administration has made much of its sharp turn from its predecessor in withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, undercutting not just U.S. forces there but the premises of previous American policy. And we’ve all seen how well that discontinuity has worked.

So my recognition is that, without some new thinking, we have only two destinations, and they are both bad places. Perhaps we should be determined to find an alternative. That’s what I will consider next.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at mhayden@washingtontimes.com. This is the second of three columns on the Iran nuclear agreement.

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