War Stories

Bad Posture

Republican opponents of the Iran deal come off looking like they want war.

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill July 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. US Secretary of State John Kerry, US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz and US Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew appeared before the committee to defend the Obama administrations proposed deal with Iran over the county's nuclear program.

Suffering fools: Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 23, 2015, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Thursday’s Senate hearing on the Iran nuclear deal hit its nadir when Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican from Wisconsin, lectured Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz about the dangers of an EMP bomb. Moniz, former head of the MIT Physics Department, could recite more about electromagnetic pulses in his sleep than Johnson could learn in a lifetime. But the deeper absurdity of the scene was that an EMP bomb—an age-old, somewhat mythical worry in certain right-wing circles—has nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal.

In this sense, though, Johnson’s obsessive rambling (and it wasn’t quite the hearing’s nadir: That moment came when he launched into the lecture again in the second round of questioning) typified—in extreme, almost comical fashion—most of the jeremiads that Senate Republicans hurled at the panel of administration witnesses: They too had nothing to do with the Iran nuclear deal—or nothing to do with the Senate’s task, which is to scrutinize the deal for the next two months, then vote it up or down.

The whole exercise may be a “charade,” as one senator huffed. Both houses of Congress will probably vote the deal down, the Republicans almost unanimously so; President Obama will veto their dissent; and there won’t be enough naysayers to override him.

Everyone understands this, which is why Republican critics can comfortably trash the deal without bothering to study it, certainly without weighing its benefits and risks. They can come off looking strong, pro-Israel, anti-Obama—whatever pose they need to strike to win the next election—without sharing the responsibility if the deal turns out badly or ceding credit if all goes well.

I spent many hours of my youth watching, in some cases covering as a newspaper reporter, Senate hearings about nuclear arms treaties that the Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations had negotiated with the Russians. These were contentious hearings, but I don’t remember anything as plainly vicious—and utterly divorced from substance—as the Republicans’ behavior at Thursday’s briefing. And the viciousness was directed not at Iran but at Obama and the witnesses at the table, including the committee’s former chairman, Secretary of State John Kerry.

It’s scabrous enough when Sen. Jim Risch the junior senator from Idaho, chortles, “You guys have been bamboozled” and, “Anyone who believes this is a good deal joins the ranks of the most naïve people in the world.” You just shake your head and wonder how it’s possible that someone like this could be a United States senator.

But when the Foreign Relations Committee’s current chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, rips at Kerry in his opening statement, saying, “I believe you’ve been fleeced,” thus setting the tone for what is to come (not just in this hearing but in the dozens more slated in the next two months), well, things have taken a weird turn.

You can like or dislike the terms of the deal. Both sides—the Iranians and the leaders of the P5+1 nations (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany)—made compromises to get the deal. Though its inspection and verification measures are as tight and thorough as any I’ve seen in a deal of this sort (excepting those imposed after the military defeat of a nation), they’re not absolutely airtight; there’s no guarantee this will work out.

Nonetheless, it’s not just disrespectful (nothing wrong with that), it’s just misinformed, to accuse the Western negotiators—career diplomats, backed by laboratory scientists, who worked on this deal for two years, struggling nonstop for three weeks at the end to hammer out the precise language—of having the wool pulled over their eyes, of being chumps and suckers, especially when the senators snapping the towels aren’t the brightest lights on the block. (At one point of his you’ve-been-fleeced routine, Corker allowed, “When I was in college, I wasn’t a particularly good student.”)

To be fair, some Republicans and a few Democrats asked legitimate critical questions about how certain aspects of this deal might play out. As a practical matter, can the P5+1 nations really reimpose sanctions if Iran cheats a few years down the road? The deal states that, if Iran is suspected of surreptitiously conducting nuclear activities in a building it hasn’t declared as a nuclear site, it might take 24 days before inspectors can go in and take a look; is that too long? Could Iran hide its activities, in the meantime, without detection? And what about the detailed inspection protocols between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (which are typically classified in these sorts of deals): Do they ensure that the IAEA won’t get hoodwinked?

These are fair questions. Kerry, Moniz, and Jack Lew, the Treasury secretary, who testified about the lifting of sanctions, supplied thorough answers, making persuasive cases that intelligence agencies would know—in most cases, right away—if Iran tried to cheat. But there are risks here: If a senator believes that the Iranians are hell-bent to cheat, and that the Western leaders won’t muster the political will to pull out of the deal and reimpose sanctions (or take other forceful action) if they did discover the cheating, well, maybe that senator shouldn’t vote for the deal. But even here, the problem wouldn’t be the deal; it would be the whole enterprise of diplomacy with a nation that hasn’t exactly proved itself trustworthy. To these people, no deal would be a good deal.

That seems to be the position of most Republican senators on the panel, though they shy away from admitting it: They simply don’t want a deal, or they don’t want a deal that President Obama has negotiated.

To the extent the Republican senators raised problems that they said they had with the deal during this hearing, their issues weren’t problems at all. Corker described the administration’s position as warning that there will be war “unless we give Iran what they want.” Kerry made hash of this caricature, noting that, before this deal, Iran had enough enriched uranium to make 10 to 12 nuclear bombs in a few months’ time—whereas, with the deal, it will cut its stock of enriched uranium by 98 percent, and its centrifuges by more than a half, fill its heavy-water reactor with cement, and allow the most intrusive regime of inspectors in the history of arms deals. “How is that giving them what they want?” he asked in a blistering tone.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a presidential candidate, coughed and sputtered through his script lines, denouncing the deal as “irreparably flawed” and Obama as having “repeatedly capitulated,” but when he honed on a specific problem with the deal, he fired blanks.* He cited an article of the deal in which the nuclear nations would provide “security guidelines” to Iran, to protect its machinery against sabotage. Rubio asked: If Israel tried to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programs, say through a cyber-attack, does this deal require the United States to come to the defense of Iran, to take sides with Iran against Israel?

Kerry and Moniz looked puzzled. No, they said, these are standard safety measures, offered to every signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (and Iran has signed it) that has a permissible nonmilitary nuclear program. It certainly doesn’t obligate us to side with Iran against Israel.

If this is the best Rubio can do, he needs to hire better staff or maybe read up a bit.

The committee’s other White House hopeful, Sen. Rand Paul, asked an interesting question. Saying that he would have preferred a more gradual, step-by-step lifting of sanctions, he wondered if this was discussed in the negotiations. Kerry said that, in fact, this was the central issue: that because of Iranian’s insistence for upfront sanctions relief, the West insisted that Iran make deep cuts up front in its nuclear materials.

At this point, though, heading near the end of the 4 ½ hour hearing, C-SPAN 3’s cameras backed up to a wide shot, revealing that, while most of the Democratic senators were still in the chamber in their seats, almost all the Republicans had gone.

These Republicans had demanded a role in this deal. Legally speaking, Congress doesn’t have a say in a multinational political arrangement such as this; Obama allowed a vote under heavy pressure, including from many Democrats. But the truth is, they don’t care about the substance of the deal; they don’t want a balanced briefing on what it does and doesn’t do. They—most of them—want, above all, to posture: to look pro-defense, pro-Israel, anti-Iran, and anti-Obama.

In the process, though, these senators look like they’re eager for a war. I don’t think they really are, but they certainly give that impression. These hearings were broadcast on Iranian TV, and according to at least one report, viewers in Tehran came away thinking these American senators seemed more hard-line than their own parliamentarians.

The real issue, which many senators are doing all they can to evade, is which is better: a deal that delays a nuclear Iran by 10 years (by some measures, 15 or 25 years), while in the meantime forcing deep cuts in its nuclear materials and infrastructure—or scuttling the deal and leaving Iran with the possibility of getting a bomb in a few months (if it wants one, which isn’t at all clear).

Yes, the deal also releases $50 billion to $100 billion of frozen Iranian assets and opens up the country to international trade for the first time in years. But the European nations sustained the sanctions that froze those assets, and that barred trade, only because they saw them as the precondition to bringing Iran to the table and negotiating a nuclear deal. The P5+1 nations, the European Union, and the U.N. Security Council have now unanimously endorsed the deal. If the U.S. Congress scuttles it, the sanctions will soon collapse as well (almost none of the frozen assets are in the United States), and we will have the worst of both worlds: a hostile Iran with lots of money and on the threshold of being a nuclear power.

The choice seems clear. The best way to fog this fact is to avoid facing up to the choice.

Correction, July 24, 2015: The article originally misspelled Marco Rubio’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)