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Rush to Judgment | Commentary

By Barry M. Blechman When the U.S. and its negotiating partners surprised the world on April 2 by concluding the framework for an agreement that would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons for an absolute minimum of 10 years (and probably for much longer), one would have thought critics of the talks might have waited a few seconds to excoriate the deal. Indeed, a reasonable person might have concluded, “Well, Iran’s progress toward a bomb has been halted for the nearly two years that it took to conclude this framework agreement, let’s give the negotiators the three more months they’ve allowed themselves to write down the actual, detailed agreement and then take a look at it.”  

But of course “reason” cuts no ice in Washington anymore, even when it pertains to foreign policy and crucial issues such as nuclear proliferation. What matters are political ambitions and the money required to fulfill them. Indeed, the Republicans attempted to pre-empt the framework talks before they succeeded by lending the bully pulpit of a joint congressional session to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then — in an unprecedented act — writing a letter to the leaders of Iran seeking to undermine the U.S. position in the talks. (Imagine the Democrats in Congress writing to Ho Chi Minh in 1972 warning him they would not support the agreement to end the Vietnam War Henry Kissinger was negotiating in Paris.) Hence, it should come as no surprise that barely minutes had passed after the announcement of the framework agreement that some in Congress were denouncing the as-yet-undrafted final document. The result is a bill authored by the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and voted on in committee recently that requires the president to submit the final agreement for congressional approval prior to its implementation. President Barack Obama is not “particularly thrilled” with the measure — and it’s easy to see why. The legislation positions Congress squarely as the backseat driver of diplomacy, giving it the power to overturn a potential hard-won nuclear agreement.  

Once again Congress lived up to its reputation — no hearings on the Corker bill were planned; no expert testimony exacted; no serious debate scheduled. None of this could happen, after all, until the framework agreement is translated into a detailed final document, expected by the end of June.  

So, what’s the hurry? Why not let the executive branch finish its job — negotiating with foreign governments and trying to reach agreements that protect America’s security and the security of its allies. And then, having a finished document to consider, let the legislative branch consider whether it has a role to play as concerns this agreement — which is not a treaty, and therefore not constitutionally in Congress’ ballpark. If Congress does then conclude it should play a role, it can hold hearings in the appropriate committees and decide what actions, if any, it wishes to take to modify the president’s ability to implement the agreement.  

The answer, of course, is politics. Republicans want to continue what they started the day after Obama was elected president: trying to ensure his administration is not crowned with success, whatever the cost to the nation. And Republican presidential candidates want to show how fiercely anti-Iranian they are to gain traction in the race for campaign workers and funds.  

The stakes are great in this debate. An unsuccessful end to the negotiations means the fracturing of the coalition that Obama knitted together to place effective sanctions on Iran. The Russians and the Chinese will depart immediately, and European and Asian companies will find ways around whatever sanctions the U.S. keeps in place — no matter how tough the Congress makes the restrictions. The Iranians will restart their nuclear weapons program and the U.S., once again, will face a choice between containing a nuclear-armed Iran and a new war in the Middle East. Given this prospect, one would think that “reason” might be given a reprieve — at least for three more months.  

Barry M. Blechman is co-founder of the Stimson Center.

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