Trust No One, Risk Everything: The Administration’s Iran Strategy

Peter Huessy Mitchell Institute On Aerospace Studies
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When putting together legislation on Capitol Hill a rule of thumb we usually followed in the Reagan administration was you have to trust folks to do the right thing. And the best way to do that was to bring everyone on board up front you needed to pass a bill. And to be open and transparent about what it was you were trying to do.

Of course legislation can be passed when you simply steam-roll the opposition. The Affordable Care Act and the Stimulus Act were both passed in this manner. On health care, health care savings accounts, and a host of other free market and competitive options were largely eliminated from consideration.

On the stimulus package, the defense department got all of $4.8 billion out of $637 billion in new spending and that was largely for alternative energy work. Homeland security got all of half a billion dollars, or about one out of every $1274 in new spending. Both bills contributed to not only bad feelings in Congress but palpable anger among the people.

The result? The mid-term elections of 2010 flipped control of the House to the Republicans. And the carry over in 2014, with the additional anger over the use of the IRS to go after political opponents, among other government injustices, flipped control of the Senate to the Republicans.

Largely as a result of this, from 2009-14, the Senate became simply a blocking device for any legislation the administration didn’t like. Gridlock and the absence of regular order resulted. Even Democratic Senators were prohibited from offering amendments to legislation that was deemed “unpleasant” by the administration.

In addition, this lack of “regular legislative order” pushed all legislation to the end of the fiscal year. This  was a deliberate strategy. The only option then to stop administration policy was to cut off funding in appropriation bills or in one big omnibus spending bill. This was exactly what some wanted. In that fight the folks with the loudest megaphone — the White House — win. Condemnation of anyone trying to “shut down the government” started early in the summer, escalated during the August recess and by September the idea of using the fiscal purse strings to change government policy was described by the progressive triumvirate of media, entertainment and academia sources as akin to running over your grandmother for five bucks.

Well, winning may be everything in politics but there is a price to pay for playing with political steam rollers. When you need your political opponents to come your way, whatever you are selling — even if perfectly sensible — becomes harder and harder to achieve.

But when what you are selling is full of holes, the lack of trust can jeopardize your entire enterprise. And if what you are seeking is — in the view of the administration — critical to U.S. security, the previous lack of trust may very well come back to haunt you, and the country.

Thus it is with the Iran nuclear deal. A lot has to be taken on faith, not the least of which are the side deals between the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA) and the head of Iran’s nuclear program.

IAEA has twelve areas of concern related to previous military work. By December 15, 2015 the head of IAEA reports to the IAEA governing board the result of conversations with Iran on these two subjects. But there are no references in the deal to what exactly Iran has to do to get a “good housekeeping seal of approval” from IAEA on December 15, 2015.

Now previous Iranian military work related to nuclear weapons and the identification of military sites where such work was carried out are two very “big deals.”

But once the IAEA approval is granted, including Iran fulfilling its obligations under section 15 of the deal, the sanctions, the arms embargo and the restrictions on ballistic missile trade go away. Three more “big deals.”

This all assumes the December 15, 2015 IAEA report does not stand in the way. But here things are fuzzy. The administration says they do not know what is in the side agreements between Iran and IAEA as to exactly what obligation Iran has to “come clean” on its previous military work. One reporter told me that we couldn’t expect the Supreme Leader to “come clean” because then Iran would have to admit they had been lying all along. And that would be “too embarrassing” to Iran.

Now in politics, a deal between the Congress and the administration may require pulling such punches. If you want a deal with your adversaries, you fudge some things. Fair enough.

Is Iran, however, a simple adversary, a negotiating “partner”, a potential regional ally, or as former Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey has declared, a “genocidal regime” bent on your destruction? How many punches do you pull with the mullahs?

If we do not know where Iran has been in its nuclear work, we have less idea of how long it will take them to get to their goal of building nuclear weapons. It’s bad enough any business deals made prior to sanctions “snapping back” get grandfathered and are unaffected. And it’s bad enough Iran gets to self-select soil and other samples of its previous nuclear work — try that with professional athletes or employees in sensitive jobs and drug testing.

The administration wants Congress to trust its judgment that Iran will live up the terms of this new deal. Understood. But it didn’t trust its political adversaries to help restart the U.S. economy in 2009 or reshape U.S. health care in 2010.

Steam rollers can be very effective when crushing dissent. They are not too useful when asking those you recently crushed to walk down the same road again — “trust me” is a tough sell.

And a sad commentary on American politics in Washington when, faced with a gathering and ominous threat of an Iranian nuclear capability, we are not united against it.

Let’s find a better way. And that means an alternative that both unites us against the Mullahs and is tough enough to do the job. Submitting such a deal as a treaty will also tell the mullahs unless the deal is smart and tough, the U.S. Senate won’t approve it. That brings strong leverage to the table.

Then, unless sensible enough to get 67 votes in the Senate, no deal may indeed mean the only alternative will be the use of military force. Trust me.