Neocons get desperate: The real reason why Iran deal drives the right-wing nuts

The GOP's screaming because they know American exceptionalism is at risk. That's a good reason to root for the deal

Published April 8, 2015 11:01PM (EDT)

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after Iran nuclear program talks finished with extended sessions.     (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after Iran nuclear program talks finished with extended sessions. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

You know very well that we are in for a messy scrap over the accord Secretary of State John Kerry and Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, crafted with the Iranians last week in Lausanne, Switzerland. And you know why this battle royal is about to ensue, too: simply because something new under the sun just got done.

It is perilous to try anything authentically new in our great country. We can develop any gadget or technology anyone can think of and many no one ever would. Material innovation is our obsession. Woe to him or her who attempts to rethink anything that has to do with our identity, our values or our idea of our place in the world.

Foreign policy is a violent zone of engagement in this respect, and absolutely full credit to Kerry and the White House: With the preliminary agreement governing Iran’s nuclear program, they have finally engaged the battle that has to be fought and won if Americans are to do at all well in the 21st century.

Rhodes said something key when Charlie Rose interviewed him via satellite even before he had flown home from Switzerland last Thursday. We cut this deal on the merits and consider it good on its terms, Rhodes explained. Whatever else happens in Iran or anywhere else did not figure in our calculations and remains to be seen.

The particulars of the accord are important to understand, and so is the way the U.S. and its negotiating partners—Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia—reached them with the plainly gifted Iranian diplomats across the table. But it is the whatever else that interests me most. It is in the larger implications of this deal that it earns the term “historic,” much flung about since last Thursday’s news.

Between now and June 30, when a comprehensive agreement is to be signed, the conversation will be all about the proper terms, of course. The principle questions, among very many, will be these:

• Is the staggered sunset in the preliminary framework—various clauses expire from 10 to 25 years out—enough? Isn’t permanent disarmament the object?

• Is the inspections regime properly comprehensive—granular in its provisions? Will we know if Iran breaks its word?

• Iran’s nuclear infrastructure remains in place. Is this not exactly what the Western powers set out to destroy?

There are answers to each of these. Very quickly:

• Yes, a quarter of a century is more than enough. As I will explain, it is a tribute to the patience and flexibility of Iran’s negotiators in Lausanne and its leaders in Tehran that they have accepted this schedule, never mind one more extensive. Even as is it extends far beyond their legal entitlement.

• The inspections regime is the most intrusive any nation has ever accepted. No need to take my word for it. Take that of Adm. Michael Mullins, the former Joint Chiefs chairman, who told Charlie Rose on the eve of the accord that it is more, even, than Washington asked of the Soviet Union during the later Cold War period.

• Any argument that the desired deal was supposed to destroy Iran’s nuclear program conclusively is 1) straight-out fallacious and 2) straighter-out stupid. There is no ground—legal, political, diplomatic, altogether rational—for this expectation.

“This deal… formalizes Iran’s status as an eventual nuclear-threshold state by allowing it to maintain a vast nuclear infrastructure,” Jeffrey Goldberg, the neoconservative commentator at the Atlantic, wrote Saturday. “This was not part of the international community’s original plan, and it is a worry.”

This is sheer mischief on Goldberg’s part. First, Iran would never accept the dismantling commentators of this stripe advocate. The point has been to alter its purposes. Second, only the U.S. and Israel, and no one else, has seriously entertained the thought that Iran can be stripped of all rights to a nuclear program as enjoyed by numerous other nations.

Finally, in the unimaginable event those negotiating with Iran forced this condition into the pact, then it would be time to worry: We would all have to reread Keynes on the Versailles Treaty, for a Middle East variant of the calamity that awaited Europe after the 1919 settlement would lie ahead. There is ressentiment enough among the Iranians, Mr. Goldberg, more than a century of it—and most of it perfectly justified. With 1930s Germany in mind, you want more now, not less?

Obama made a very telling remark in a much-noted interview he gave NPR earlier this week. “We want Iran not to have nuclear weapons precisely because we can’t bank on the nature of the regime changing,” the president said. “That’s exactly why we don’t want to have nuclear weapons. If, suddenly, Iran transformed itself into Germany or Sweden or France, there would be a different set of conversations about their nuclear infrastructure.”

This deserves careful thought. What exactly is Obama telling us here?

Superficially, the argument long advanced by hawks on the Iran question is that Tehran’s irreducible ambition is to weaponize its program. But its protests to the contrary date back a decade—taking in even the awful Ahmadinejad years—and neither the CIA nor Mossad has ever found evidence otherwise. The agreement just reached must stand as persuasive proof on this point.

“If Iran were truly lusting to break out and get a bomb, why in the world would they do this?” Gary Sick, an adviser to three presidents and now a distinguished Iran scholar at Columbia University, asked just after the framework agreement was announced.

I have no answer to this. Critics of this deal will contrive one—somehow, somewhere—but the logic will not hold up. Wait for it.

What, then, is Obama’s true point? I find it in one of the features of the accord that makes it historic.

As Iran develops a peaceful nuclear program dedicated to power generation and medical research, it will not be the first non-Western nation to become a threshold nuclear power (meaning one capable of weaponizing if it so chooses). There are Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and India, among others. But it will be the first (unless we count North Korea) outside the Western orbit to achieve threshold status.

This is very big, in my read, altogether positive. It is a large step toward the parity between West and non-West that I argue stands as the single most important project requiring our attention in the 21st century. As such it will prompt us all to begin thinking differently.

Read Obama’s remark in the NPR interview again. He is effectively diminishing this reality, and one understands why: He wishes it were not so. It is new, and Obama knows all about the liabilities of new. Whatever his own beliefs as to the West’s primacy—these are hard to discern—it is on this point that the battles to come are to be waged.

Readers of this column will be familiar with its unsparing critique of Kerry’s conduct of foreign policy since he took control of State two years ago. (It seems like a decade, doesn’t it? So many messes in so little time.)

But I count the Lausanne accord a very significant redemption. There is the method of what he has just brought home and then the object of the exercise, the means and the end. Here we get into the implications of Lausanne.

It is clear from the terms so far explained that Kerry finally grasped, and then acted on, the thought that Iranians are highly sensitive to any question involving their sovereignty. And from the Mossadegh coup until now, respect for Iranian sovereignty has been more or less absent from the American repertoire. In my read, Kerry’s attention to this sensitivity made the difference between success in Switzerland and failure. He asked a lot and got a lot, but he avoided excess.

Equally, Kerry abandoned the idle fallacy that we had to put Iran’s rights to a nuclear program in quotation marks—Iran’s “rights,” remember?—and recognize the reality of its position under international law. Doing anything in accordance with international law is not a specialty among American secretaries of state. Again, this is new, vitally important and reflected in the terms.

By all appearances, and we have little more to go on thus far, Kerry, Rhodes and others on the U.S. team operated as one member of a six-nation side. New once more. As Rhodes obliquely acknowledged in his Charlie Rose appearance, other members of  P5 + 1 acted as a restraining force in disposing of Washington’s most unrealistic, deal-crippling ideas as to what needed to be negotiated.

In a strictly American context, Kerry and Rhodes have taken an urgently needed step toward demilitarizing this nation’s foreign policy and wresting control from the Pentagon. To put this another way, they have countered the Manichaean argument that the only alternative to military response abroad is isolation.

These features of the process and the outcome of the Iranian negotiation—means and end—give it a 21st century cast. They offer at least a suggestion as to where this nation needs to go in its interactions with others.

“You asked about an Obama doctrine,” Obama said in his interview with Thomas Friedman last Saturday. “The doctrine is: We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.” This is only partway to where we need to go, but let us claim ground where it can be claimed.

I have caveats as to this question of the new in the Iran pact and its wider consequences. These reservations are considerable enough to fall into the other-than-that-Mrs.-Lincoln category.

First, it is a serious question whether Obama or anyone at State is prepared to defend the territory the administration has just claimed, at least by implication, for a new American posture abroad. Obama has opened to Burma and then to Cuba, and good enough. The outline of an ambitious intent suggests itself. But it is doubtful he will—and maybe even can—stand by it in the breach.

The obvious example here is Israel. As forecast in this space when Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s just-elected reformist, opened the door to the U.S. when he addressed the U.N. in September 2013, the potential for a profound disruption in Washington’s bilateral relationship with Israel was plain if one looked carefully.

Now the potential is a reality. And as argued previously, such a redirection would be beneficial to all concerned. Kerry must see this, given how badly Prime Minister Netanyahu burned him when he sent the latest round of Mideast talks up in smoke. So must many others at State and in the White House.

But the president who has had Israeli sand thrown repeatedly in his face—ever more West Bank settlements, Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, the astonishing statement rejecting a two-state solution the other week—now rushes to coddle Netanyahu as if he were a spoiled child.

There will be no constructive adjustment in U.S.-Israeli ties, in short. And in my view, this is just what the Middle East’s most dangerous man wants. For all the go-it-alone bluster, Netanyahu is frightened of all that is new, just as every one of his allies in Washington is.

Second, we come to the battles ahead on the Iran question. Again, these will be fought on the terms, but in my read we will watch a proxy war for one of even greater import.

Here I will connect a lot of dots that may seem unrelated. Bear with me.

On one hand we have the immigration question and the border with Mexico, the fight over climate change, the other one over Obamacare, the religious freedom laws, preposterously illogical Supreme Court rulings, and the list of Republican candidates for 2016, all appearing to compete for who can be most out of step.

On the other we have the Ukraine aggression (ours, of course), the collapse of all constructive ties with Russia, the battle for Europe’s hearts and minds, the new Iraq war, the revival of  Cold War animosities toward China, the ambition to topple Assad, the installation of al-Sisi in Egypt, and now the fight to come over mending ties with Iran.

In my reckoning it is all of an admittedly unlikely piece. What we witness is reaction across the board as it assumes in every case an increasingly desperate character. This is for the simple reason that it is gradually losing ground.

I do not find it coincidental that the Supreme Court permits the sale of democratic process to the Koch brothers while the empire fights for survival in its twilight phase. The exceptionalist narrative, which is what it all comes to, is exhausted. It remains powerful but has lost all strength—a key distinction. Those opposed to it should not miss this by letting all the messes distract them. The messes are interim. Causes for optimism lie behind them.

I offer this as the context in which to study the debates to come on the Iran accord. The war over exceptionalism will be the subtext. This is bound to make the proceedings messy and intractable, as desperation tends to do. Critics of the pact have already begun to advance positions that are rational only when understood by way of reference to this deeper meaning. A semiologists’ festival, let us call it, all signifying something else.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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American Exceptionalism Ben Rhodes Charlie Rose Iran John Kerry Neoconservatives