Call out the neocons: The Iran deal gives Democrats an opportunity -- but they may be too timid to seize it

Democrats might try taking the fight to the GOP in favor of Iran diplomacy, rather than fearfully ducking the issue

Published July 15, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Danny Johnston/Jim Bryant/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Danny Johnston/Jim Bryant/Photo montage by Salon)

There are still several unknowns surrounding the new diplomatic framework limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but when news of the deal came down early Tuesday, two things were certain: Republicans would be united in opposition, and Democrats would – in very Democrat-like fashion – panic and fall to pieces.

The Iran deal now moves to Congress for review and approval. Since Republicans control both chambers and are predisposed to hate the deal, what will likely happen is they’ll vote to block the removal of sanctions on Iran, and Obama will veto that resolution. The question is whether Republicans can round up enough Democratic support to override Obama’s veto in both houses (it is unlikely this would happen).

But the Republicans will nonetheless try to extract political benefit from all this by saying very mean things about the president "appeasing" the terrorists and attacking Democrats for supporting him. Vox’s Jonathan Allen took the temperature of a few Hill Democrats to get a sense of where things stand, and, predictably, they’re scared that voters will punish them for backing Obama and his diplomatic engagement. As such, they’re looking for ways to duck the issue and keep their fingerprints off it:

One House Democrat who is generally supportive of the president — and open to the deal — expressed hope Tuesday that the Senate would sustain an Obama veto of legislation blocking the deal so that House Democrats wouldn't have to vote on it at all. It's easier for Obama to round up 34 senators than 146 House Democrats, the lawmaker argued — even though conventional wisdom holds that the opposite is true.

Thus, the Democrats continued their proud tradition of ceding national security arguments to Republicans because they’re afraid they’ll look “weak.”

The alternative to this “hide under some coats and hope that somehow everything will work out” strategy was laid out by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. Murphy has been laying the groundwork for a progressive foreign policy platform, and he told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent that the Iran deal is the biggest and best opportunity for Democrats to actually make the case that diplomacy is an expression of American strength:

“Republicans simply don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of diplomacy as a tool of American power,” Senator Chris Murphy, a rising star in the party, tells me. “Democrats have to make a loud, passionate case for diplomacy as part of the way we keep ourselves safe. This is going to be the seminal diplomatic achievement of this administration. It will provide us with our best opportunity to make a case for diplomatic engagement with the rest of the world.”

The contrast with the Republicans is essential here, and there’s a strong case for the Democrats to make that a) the GOP is utterly incoherent when it comes to Iran policy, and b) their preferred policy outcome necessarily makes armed conflict in the Middle East much more likely.

On the first point, one only need look at two of the top-tier candidates for the Republican presidential nomination and their completely bonkers positions on Iran: Scott Walker and self-styled foreign policy expert Marco Rubio. Both vow that they, as president, will unilaterally withdraw from the diplomatic framework and reimpose sanctions that, they argue, will “cripple” Iran. That’s a nonsensical position to hold, and it would constitute a flagrant betrayal of some of our closest European allies. And while they’re turning us into international pariahs for breaking faith on the Iran deal, Iran will have all the justification it needs to withdraw from the deal itself and push ahead with whatever nuclear ambitions it has while it blames the United States for scuttling the framework.

That makes the possibility of armed conflict much more likely than under the current proposed deal. “It is true that an agreement with Iran carries some risk,” wrote Mitchell Plitnick and Matt Duss when the diplomatic framework was first announced, “but moving on without a deal is riskier by far. It would mean no inspections, no restrictions on Iran’s actions, increasing tensions, and quite possibly, a series of escalations toward another Middle East war.”

And really, you don’t have to look too hard for high-profile Republicans and conservatives advocating war with Iran as the alternative to diplomacy. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who has emerged as the Senate GOP’s voice on Iran issues, talks about bombing Iranian nuclear facilities as if it would be a tidy little affair that we could start and finish over the course of a few days. John Bolton, the mustachioed neocon who is advising several Republican 2016 candidates and wants to make himself an indispensable foreign policy guru, thinks diplomacy and sanctions against Iran are worthless and that we should just skip to the part where things start exploding.

It’s a fairly straightforward contrast between the side that wants to work on a peaceful resolution for as long as is possible, and the side that is working to hasten the descent into violence. The public backs the idea of entering into a diplomatic agreement with Iran, and the likely Democratic nominee for 2016 has already thrown her support behind it. There are plenty of reasons for the Democrats to take the fight to Republicans on this one, make an aggressive case for the benefits of diplomacy, and not be cowed by the GOP’s saber rattling. But, of course, that’s no guarantee they’ll actually do it.

By Simon Maloy

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