Congress’s Iran dilemma: Weighing the president’s conflicting messages

President Barack Obama was true to his word in pursuing diplomacy and engagement tirelessly.

US President Barack Obama speaks at American University (photo credit: screenshot)
US President Barack Obama speaks at American University
(photo credit: screenshot)
With the vote on the Iran agreement approaching, members of Congress face a difficult choice: focus on the over-promising commitments of the president who set a high bar going into negotiations, or accept his arguments for a questionable deal that under-delivers? President Barack Obama was true to his word in pursuing diplomacy and engagement tirelessly.
Some thought him naive, but few opposed his outreach to Tehran when he famously said that if the ayatollah unclenched his fist he would find the president’s open hand.
When negotiations began, the president offered baseline positions by which Congress could measure success. Even his harshest critics understood that no deal was achievable without compromise, but the administration was very clear about identifying the essential building blocks for a supportable agreement.
For example, in keeping with multiple UN resolutions, President Obama staked out the position that Iran would have to stop enriching uranium and end its nuclear weapons program. When Iran resisted, the president backed off.
To reassure Congress that even something less than a total halt to Iran’s nuclear weapons program would be a worthwhile accomplishment, his team promised that an intrusive inspections regime would serve as a failsafe watchdog.
The president’s deputy national security advisor asserted that the IAEA – which reports to the UN and has demonstrated little ability to accomplish its mission when Iran puts up the slightest resistance, according to the Obama administration itself – would have “anytime, anywhere” access to Iranian facilities. Now, after we learn the IAEA will have neither immediate nor unrestricted access, administration supporters denounce Congressional simpletons who actually believed the White House.
Similarly, US negotiators insisted that only the nuclear file was on the negotiating table. Members of Congress who wanted the agreement to address Iran’s funding and arming of proxies like Hezbollah, Iran’s propping up of Syria’s genocidal President Assad, and the rest of the mischief caused by the leading state sponsor of terrorism were told that there would be a time and place for such demands, and this was not it. President Obama cautioned that allowing those matters to intrude would undermine sensitive nuclear deliberations.
When Iran cynically introduced those very issues into the negotiations at the 11th hour – not in the context of addressing the Islamic Republic’s destabilizing policies throughout the region and beyond, but to end sanctions on conventional weapons sales and ballistic missile testing – the administration caved.
Further, when President Obama entered office he made fighting nuclear weapons proliferation a cornerstone of his national security policy. He said he wanted to put the world on a path to eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Everyone understood Iran would be the test.
However, when the president went on National Public Radio in April to explain why the emerging deal deserved support, he conceded that “what is a more relevant fear would be that in year 13, 14, 15 they have advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.”
Evidently, the president’s solemn pledge to tackle proliferation has a short shelf-life, and if Iran’s threatened Sunni neighbors follow through on their determination to acquire their own nukes, it will be shorter still.
Finally, the president accurately says today that Congress’ choice is his deal or no deal, as few believe negotiations could be restarted anytime soon. Frustrated members of Congress cannot be faulted for pointing out the administration’s failure to get a better deal when it had the chance to push for terms the president insisted were prerequisites for success.
In other words, the question, by the administration’s own standards, is whether or not Congress should approve a bad deal. But the president answered that question when he repeatedly declared “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
Given this litany, “trust but verify” takes on new meaning, with a need to apply its virtues to all parties.
Before the administration further vilifies those who bear a constitutional and moral responsibility to get it right, the president should remember he was against this deal before he was for it. Changing one’s mind is not a crime, but the president should be more generous to his former congressional colleagues, as he’s given them no good options on a difficult vote of conscience.
The author was then-Senator Joe Biden’s communications director and spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2000-2006.
For more on the Iran Deal:
My daughter and Iran
Missile defense central to Iran deal
The limits of diplomacy: Why ‘better Iran deal’ may not be possible
Iran’s old-new role in the region
The price President Obama will demand from Israel for increased military aid after the JCPOA