Iran Nuclear Deal Could Spell End of the War That Never Was

In less than a week, the outcome of the nuclear talks with Iran will be clear. According to one P5+1 diplomat, the possibilities — ranging from most to least likely — are an extension of the talks, a comprehensive agreement, or an agreement in principle.

Not on the menu — at least among the principals at the negotiations — is a return to the escalatory cycle that defined the past decade and threatened constantly to spill over into war. As the U.S.’s lead negotiator, Wendy Sherman, remarked at a conference in Washington last month, if the talks fail, “escalation is the name of the game, on all sides, and none of that is good.” In other words, failure is not an option.

This — not surprisingly — comes as a disappointment to some in Washington. Little more than a decade after having advocated war on Iraq, many of the same personalities have sought to bring the U.S. and Iran to the precipice of military conflict. Their efforts were only narrowly averted last summer when secret negotiations in Oman yielded November’s interim agreement on the nuclear issue. Since then, President Obama’s detractors have taken aim at the talks itself, pouncing on any and all U.S. compromises as paving the way towards nuclear holocaust.

But their messaging, besides being histrionic, has been confused. In the same week where Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that “the alternative to a bad deal is not war,” but more sanctions, leading U.S. hawks, Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz, wrote that the “wise[] bet is that sanctions will fail…” — at least “without other forms of coercion.”

What “other forms of coercion” did they have in mind? War, of course.

This cross-signaling bespeaks a broader problem for Washington’s warmongers: the nuclear talks have de-escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran not just on the nuclear issue, but on others as well. This has made their lives difficult because, instead of merely invoking Iran to garner support for their hard-line position, they are now forced to argue the point and to justify why turning our back on dialogue is the right approach.

Because let’s face it: Having been involved in constant negotiations with each other for the past year, the U.S. and Iran understand each other better now than at any point over the past 35 years. Moreover, with the Middle East in a turmoil never before seen, both countries have been forced to revisit a calculus that had made each other implacable enemies, incapable of cooperation. If the Middle East and the U.S.’s role in it is to be salvaged, it will have to be on the back of a broader U.S.-Iran détente.

It is a difficult point to argue. With most U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of the year and the White House prepared to put more boots-on-the-ground in Iraq — all the while U.S. fighter jets pound Islamic State outposts in Syria — the idea that the United States can open up a new front with Iran is unsound. Americans have neither the appetite for a new war nor the ability to wage one, and the empty braggadocio of U.S. hawks won’t change that fact.

That leaves U.S. hawks in the unenviable position of having to swim against the tide in U.S.-Iran relations. At a time when so many are hopeful for a peaceful resolution to this conflict – both in the United States, in Iran, and around the world – those pushing for war look and sound perverse in their efforts to thwart compromise and kill the negotiations.

Being the last, best chance the United States has at limiting Iran’s nuclear program, this pulls the thin veneer that long masked their intentions off for good. Pushing conflict with Iran has never been about the nuclear program, as much as it has about that old desire to reconfigure the Middle East via regime change. How else can we explain U.S. hard-liners’ adamant opposition to an interim deal that, by all accounts, has stalled Iran’s nuclear program for the first time in a decade and allowed international inspectors daily access to check on Iran’s nuclear facilities? How else to explain the shrillness that greets mere letter-writing to Iran’s leader at a time when the nuclear deadline nears and the Middle East goes up in flames?

U.S. hawks are pulling no punches, because they have no more punches to pull. They recognize well enough that if a nuclear deal is cemented in the weeks ahead, their push for war is close to being all for naught.

That doesn’t mean they won’t try to spoil an agreement. Two weeks ago, Republicans swept to majorities in both houses of Congress during the mid-terms, giving U.S. hard-liners a pedestal on which to preempt a nuclear deal. Already, some members of Congress have designs on scurrying any agreement reached between the U.S. and Iran — either by preventing the president from implementing a deal or by imposing new sanctions on Iran.

However, if the White House has the wherewithal to withstand Republican-led attacks on a nuclear deal, U.S. hawks will be without any further means to advance us towards war against Iran. A nuclear agreement will take hold; both sides will adhere to their reciprocal obligations; and the world will be free of both renewed conflict and a new nuclear-weapons power.

President Obama’s legacy will then be defined not merely as bringing to a close two wars inherited from his predecessor, but as spelling the end of the war that never was. That will be — in the great scheme of things — his singular triumph in office. It will also be the last throw of cold-water on war plans a decade-in-the-making.

This article was originally published in Huffington Post.

Administration Hears Skepticism, But Also Support, for Iran Negotiations on Capitol Hill

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman

Undersecretary of Treasury David Cohen and Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman

Washington, DC – “In the past six months, significant and steady progress has been made,” said Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and lead negotiator in Iran nuclear talks, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. “We agreed to an extension because we see significant progress in negotiations and see a comprehensive plan forward.”

Sherman, who was invited to discuss the status of the P5+1 talks, also testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee later that day. She was joined by the Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, to discuss the implementation of the extended Joint Plan of Action (JPOA).

While the negotiations were met with some of the skepticism, and in some cases outright opposition, that has often characterized the views on Capitol Hill, many committee members acknowledged that the process was moving forward and that gains had been achieved. Even some of the diplomatic track’s most outspoken skeptics, including Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-TN) in the Senate and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) in the House, expressed cautious support for the extension of talks while demanding that no further extensions be granted beyond November 24. “It is difficult to say what will happen,” Sherman responded, “but our intent is to end this by November 24 in one direction or another.”

Questioned about the potential “breakout window” Iran may have under a final deal, Sherman emphasized that the key to a deal would be monitoring mechanisms to ensure that any attempt by Iran to cheat or breakout would be detectable. “This is about verification,” she said. “This is about monitoring. …This is about inspections.”

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) utilized his time to slam the negotiations as a “dangerous national security failure,” warning that the U.S. has given up its leverage by easing some sanctions and not doubling down on the military threat. But Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) took issue with Rubio’s criticism. “Some of the language I just heard from Senator Rubio brings back the rhetoric of days past – we do not want the smoking gun to be a nuclear cloud,” she said. “This is a historic chance; we can either let it pass us by or all work together.” Boxer noted that she would support sanctions only if the talks failed, in which case she emphasized “all options” would be considered, but she warned her colleagues, “we have to strongly support these diplomatic efforts so that old rhetoric does not come true.”

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) – who were the only Republicans to oppose recent sanctions – expressed support for the talks, highlighting the achievements of the interim deal so far. “The diplomacy avenue must be explored as much as we can…this is an opportunity and we should test [it],” said Flake. “I applaud the administration for doing so.” 

In the House, the negotiations faced more intense scrutiny–with several lawmakers condemning the interim deal and rejecting any solution in which Iran retains any enrichment capacity.  But others, like Representative Gerald Connolly (D-VA), strongly defended the negotiations. Connolly warned his colleagues against “making perfect the enemy of the good.” He was joined by Gregory Meeks (D-NY) who said, “Many critics have said that these negotiations are risky…I believe strongly that it is even more risky for us if we did not negotiate, we would be worse off without the concessions gained in the interim agreement.”