The Right (and Wrong) Questions to Ask About the Iran Agreement

The deal is done. What can be done to clean up the mess?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. (U.S. State Department / Reuters)

Defenders of Barack Obama’s Iran deal ask a seemingly practical question of its critics: What would you do instead?

But that question is only seemingly practical, not actually practical. The deal won’t go into effect only if two-thirds of both houses of Congress vote to override a presidential veto of a joint resolution of disapproval. Ten Democratic senators and 43 Democratic House members could defect from the president’s camp—and still the deal would become binding. There’s unrest among congressional Democrats over this agreement, but not that much unrest. (Here’s a useful explainer of the exact mechanics of Congress’s role in evaluating the accord.)

In other words, the “what would you do instead?” question is misleading. It implies that the moment of decision on the agreement is located somewhere in the future—rather than, as is really the case, that the moment of decision has already passed.

More specifically, deal proponents like to frame the question as “Deal or war?” That framing allows them to insinuate that the deal they got was the only deal possible. That’s quite a claim, and it deserves examination. Which is why it’s important to discuss not only the terms of the deal, but the deal process. Was it smart for U.S. officials to look so eager for an agreement? Was it wise for U.S. officials to keep publicly proclaiming that a military strike would be futile? Was it shrewd to discuss how much the United States would benefit from Iranian cooperation against ISIS? Was it politic for the Obama administration to commit the prestige of a secretary of state and past presidential candidate to the final phases of talks?

Such questions about process should be as much a part of the after-action assessment of the deal as substantive questions about inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities and easing sanctions against Iran. They inform the true task ahead, which is cleaning up a mess already made. Are there ways to regain at least some of the leverage that the Obama administration surrendered? Is it possible to improve through renegotiation the weakness of the arms-control portions of the deal? How should the United States contain the resurgent Iran that the administration has enriched and empowered? Those are the practical questions. As for questions that indulge the pretense that the Obama administration hasn’t already given away the store? Those aren’t practical at all.