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How Not to Sell the Iran Nuclear Deal

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"The administration has adopted a preemptory, and sometimes arrogant, tone in selling this accord...The more certain and authoritative the administration sounds, and the more it suggests in word and tone that it alone knows best, the more pushback it will draw," writes Aaron David Miller.

The Iran nuclear deal is effectively done. The chances that Congress will be able to block the agreement appear remote. The White House appears able, in at least one house, to hold off the two-thirds majority required to overturn a presidential veto. It’s also likely that the International Atomic Energy Agency will give Iran passing grades on its report on the past military dimensions of Tehran’s nuclear program and will certify by year’s end that Iran is complying with provisions of the agreement.

But the Obama administration’s methods for marketing this agreement leave much to be desired.

The “Father Knows Best” demeanor: In more than 20 years at the State Department, I had to try to market my fair share of ideas, plans, and even agreements to a skeptical Congress and media. I know that negotiators can fall in love with their discussions and the accords they produce. There is also a tendency in government to feel that you have all the information (and your critics don’t), that you’re charged with protecting the national interest (and critics have narrower agendas), and that you got the best deal you could (and critics are living in a fantasy land). But tone is still important. And the administration has adopted a preemptory, and sometimes arrogant, tone in selling this accord. A better deal may or may not have been possible. But it doesn’t help matters to suggest, as Secretary of State John Kerry has, that those who think there was an alternative are fantasizing or to dismiss as dumb any criticism that he wasn’t tough enough with Iran. The more certain and authoritative the administration sounds, and the more it suggests in word and tone that it alone knows best, the more pushback it will draw. After all, it’s not as if this agreement doesn’t have major flaws.

Preempting Congress: Maybe an adversarial relationship with Congress was inevitable. The president eventually signed the bill giving lawmakers 60 days to review a deal, largely because Sen. Bob  Corker managed to offer sensible legislation that had bipartisan support and seemed to give Congress a voice, though not an easy route to kill the accord. The White House probably figured that if worse came to worse, the administration would have the numbers in at least one house of Congress to sustain a presidential veto. Still, the U.N. Security Council’s vote Monday to endorse the accord–even with a 90-day implementation period over actions on sanctions, to cover Congress’s 60-day review–is being interpreted as boxing in Congress. Criticism is coming from Democrats whose support the administration needs and from Republicans who say that the administration is doing an end-run around the Hill. It’s hard not to draw that conclusion when Secretary Kerry says things like: “If Congress were to veto the deal, Congress—the United States of America—would be in noncompliance with this agreement and contrary to all of the other countries in the world.”

This isn’t a peace treaty: The Obama administration has acknowledged that even with a nuclear agreement, challenges remain in dealing with Iran, particularly its behavior and regional policies. The U.S. intends to hold Iran accountable for its actions, Secretary Kerry told NPR on Monday, largely by supporting regional allies such as Saudi Arabia. But the case is far from convincing. The administration was loath to challenge Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Hezbollah in the run-up to the accord. Why would it risk causing problems during the implementation period? The U.S. tendency might well be the opposite: to test the possibility that Iran can be engaged as a partner in the region–precisely the outcome feared by traditional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Even before the agreement was reached, the White House was making the case that Iran would put assets unfrozen by sanctions relief into its economy, not toward funding terrorism. Secretary Kerry said as much to journalist Judy Woodruff last week, implying that Iran is somehow prevented from assisting its bad allies and suggesting that the CIA has concluded that Iran’s fiscal needs will induce its regime to direct assistance to its economy. A more compelling (and honest) approach would have been to admit that there are problems with sanctions relief and to look into ways to address them.

This Iran deal would be a hard sell under any circumstances. But smart politics is about expanding the ranks of those who support you, not willfully making enemies. At this point, even if the deal goes through, the administration has broken more crockery with Congress and among its traditional allies in the Middle East than it had to. On such a consequential foreign policy issue, that’s really too bad.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.

About the Author

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Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more