It’s a little soon for an end zone dance, but President Obama took a big step toward another huge political win for his supposed lame duck second term this week, announcing the framework for a deal to restrict Iran’s ability to pursue a nuclear weapon. The negotiations bled past the March 31 deadline by a couple of days, but on Thursday afternoon, the president took to the podium in the Rose Garden to lay out the deal, and preemptively defend it from critics who have stopped at almost nothing to sabotage it:
So when you hear the inevitable critics of the deal sound off, ask them a simple question: Do you really think that this verifiable deal, if fully implemented, backed by the world’s major powers, is a worse option than the risk of another war in the Middle East? Is it worse than doing what we’ve done for almost two decades, with Iran moving forward with its nuclear program and without robust inspections? I think the answer will be clear.
The deal itself is, by most objective assessments, better than expected, with some provisions lasting as long as twenty years, and the most strict provisions lasting ten. As the president said in his remarks, and the White House has repeated consistently during these talks, that’s two or three times longer than a military strike (which we could still do if Iran were to violate the deal), and extends the “breakout period” for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, from its current two or three months to at least a year.
That’s an important point, because Republican opponents of the deal (and Benjamin Netanyahu) have tried to convince people that they’re not agitating for war by insisting that a fourth option would be to leave sanctions in place and hope for an even better deal. If the United States walked away from the negotiating table, though, even if the international community agreed to leave sanctions in place (unlikely), Iran could build a nuclear weapon in the time it would have taken to sign the final deal. There’s no time to wear them down some more.
Following his announcement, Obama spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the contrast between the White House’s version of that call and the prime minister’s is as good a preview of how this is playing out in the United States. Despite exceeding expectations at nearly every level, Netanyahu told Obama, “A deal based on this framework would threaten the survival of Israel.”
Republicans followed suit, promising to (continue to) do everything they can to scuttle the deal. In doing so, though, they are virtually guaranteeing President Obama a political victory, no matter what happens on that June 30 deadline.
Because the deal still has so many more miles to go before it crosses the finish line, political analysts have been measured in their assessments of it, but even getting to this point has been a monumental accomplishment. It’s a bit like trying to pull off an Ocean’s 11-style caper, only all of Ocean’s eleven hate each other (and not in that movie-buddy way), and Danny Ocean has to hold press briefings every day telling a hundred reporters how the caper is going. The White House has done an excellent job, so far, of keeping expectations low enough to exceed, but not so low that everyone walks away.
The next three months will be even more difficult, with several huge issues still apparently unresolved. Even without interference from Congress, there is so much that can go wrong. It’s not just Iran that Obama and John Kerry must keep in the boat, there are also the other P5+1 nations, including Russia. If the administration appears too eager or overconfident, someone like Vladimir Putin could see an opening to embarrass the United States.
By jumping the gun with criticism of a deal that isn’t done yet, Republicans have preemptively taken the blame if a deal fails to get done, instead of letting the negotiations play out and blaming Obama for the failure. If the deal does get finalized in June, it will be Obama’s accomplishment alone, and make no mistake, it will be a big fucking deal.
Polling on the Iran nuclear talks have consistently shown two things: Americans overwhelmingly support this kind of a deal, and are overwhelmingly skeptical that Iran will adhere to it. The framework crams surveillance into every orifice of the Iranian nuclear program, but even if they violate the deal, Americans will blame them, not the President.
But there are good reasons to believe that not only will Iran agree to the deal, they’ll largely stick to it. Aside from the crippling sanctions that brought them to the negotiating table in the first place, news of the framework has been met with widespread celebration in Iran. As sanctions are suspended and/or lifted (the timetable for which is still a major point of contention), pressure to maintain the deal will increase, not decrease, and will present the opportunity to resolve the other contentious issues between Iran and the U.S.
Over the past several months, it has been tough for the press to gauge the administration’s level of optimism regarding the deal, since public diplomacy required a steady stream of cautiously optimistic pessimism. My impression, based on close observation of the White House’s public and private postures, is that they do expect the deal to get done, and for it to hold. If you’re looking for some bread crumbs to follow in that direction, consider Hillary Clinton’s response to the framework. She released a statement offering the same sort of qualified optimism that the President did, concluding “There is much to do and much more to say in the months ahead, but for now diplomacy deserves a chance to succeed.”
Not the most ringing endorsement, to be sure, but from a cautious politician like Hillary, it’s not nothing. Now, consider that just over a week ago, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was singing Clinton’s praises over her role in bringing Iran to the table. Josh Earnest is nothing if not disciplined, and won’t tell you his lunch order if it’s not in his briefing book, so that messaging, you can bet, was vetted and approved.
While it remains to be seen just how successful the Iran deal will be, and even if it gets signed, the politics of the deal favor the Obama administration, and even Democrats who oppose the deal but are waiting to see how it turns out. The only thing Republicans have done is lock up the 29% or so of Americans who want to go to war with Iran, but something tells me they already had those votes.