The Republicans' 'Principled' Case For Killing The Iran Deal

As the nation takes stock of the bizarre fever dream that took place in Cleveland this past week, it's easy to forget that the GOP actually unveiled its platform that translates the rhetoric - from "lock her up" to "kill the deal" - into actual policy proposals.

On the Iran deal, the party attempted to cobble together a constitutional case for why the next President should undo U.S. commitments - attempting to cast killing the deal as a matter of real principle rather than just another transparent act of political sabotage against Obama or a doubling down on the neocon dream of Iraq-style regime change in Iran. But as much as the platform tries to dress it up, it is still a pledge to "tear the deal to shreds":

We consider the Administration's deal with Iran, to lift international sanctions and make hundreds of billions of dollars available to the Mullahs, a personal agreement between the President and his negotiating partners and non-binding on the next president. Without a two-thirds endorsement by the Senate, it does not have treaty status. ... A Republican president will not be bound by it.

The platform puts the Iran deal at the centerpiece of a pledge to demand treaties for ALL international agreements:

[Obama's] media admirers portray his personal commitments -- whether on climate change, Iranian weapons, or other matters -- as done deals. They are not, and a new Republican executive will work with the Congress to reestablish constitutional order in America's foreign relations. All international executive agreements and political arrangements entered into by the current Administration must be deemed null and void as mere expressions of the current president's preferences.

Keep in mind, the Republican-controlled Congress has barely been able to pass a budget, let alone approve even the most benign of treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. And, considering that Donald Trump has now repeatedly said he would not consider himself bound to America's NATO obligations - obligations that were indeed ratified by the Senate in simpler times (ahem, NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization) - this supposedly principled fealty to treaties comes off as a little less than sincere.

To be fair, the platform is technically accurate on this point (something that can't be said about much of the document's characterizations of the Iran deal itself). The next President is not legally bound to uphold the Iran deal. There are, in fact, a lot of things the President isn't legally bound to do but which would be really reckless - and violating the Iran deal is at the top of the list. This is not a bilateral agreement negotiated exclusively with Iran, it was an agreement entered with the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. If the U.S. violates the deal, Iran would not just be completely freed from its nuclear constraints, but we would seriously discredit ourselves and antagonize our allies - who would be unwilling to "snap back" sanctions or follow our lead again on such matters after being so badly burned. Iran's nuclear program could once again advance unfettered while the U.S. would be badly isolated on the issue, leaving Trump and the Republicans with little recourse to reverse Iran's progress towards breakout capability other than to start a war.

But if Donald Trump is willing to shred a NATO treaty that could be all that separates us from World War III, what should his party care about shredding the Iran deal based on its fictional hysterics and starting just one more military adventure in the Middle East?

The platform's treaty argument is a familiar one - the Senate's own self-styled Constitutional expert and renegade diplomat Tom Cotton (R-AK) led the charge in making this argument with considerable bravado last year. He corralled 46 of his Republican colleagues to sign onto a letter to Iran's leaders, behind the backs of the President and American negotiators, informing Tehran that he and his esteemed friends would blow up any agreement negotiated by Obama because it's not a treaty. Many who signed the letter acknowledged it was a mistake (John McCain even said he was trying to get out of town to avoid a snowstorm and was apparently just signing onto letters at random as part of his exit strategy). The whole episode was a major embarrassment, but apparently there is no ceiling to the levels of embarrassment some are willing to provoke when it comes to the long game against the Iran deal. Cotton is now even being talked about as a 2020 candidate. Seriously.

Meanwhile, the whole debate ignores the fact that Congress did get a vote on the agreement. Several Democrats, led by Senator Tim Kaine, broke with the White House and demanded bipartisan legislation to give the Senate and the House 60 days to review the deal and vote on it. Those like Kaine voted for it while opponents of the deal, almost exclusively Republicans, failed to secure enough votes to block the nuclear agreement and so the deal went through. In some parallel universe where Congress is a functioning branch of government, that would be the end of the story.

Here in the dystopian political reality of 2016, opponents of the Iran deal continue to relentlessly work to unravel it - and they really need to take a deep breath. The Iran deal is not the first of its kind. Some of the most consequential international agreements negotiated by the U.S. - from the Atlantic Charter to the Helsinki Accords - have not been negotiated as treaties. That did not mean that as soon as the Administration who negotiated those deals left office, their successor treated the agreements as a mere "preference" of the former President. Incoming presidents don't swap out their predecessors international agreements as casually as the White House drapes and china (though I am sure Trump's decisions on the interior design of the White House would be pretty reckless in their own right).

That being said, the Republican Party's delusions on Iran don't leave the Democrats off the hook. The initial draft of the Democratic party platform suggested that the U.S. "wouldn't hesitate" to attack if Iran violates the nuclear agreement. That language has since improved, but still retains threats of military action. Democratic messengers must not be so insecure about running on the national security principles that have actually succeeded - like committed diplomacy - instead of trying to sound as "tough" (or belligerent) as the opposition. If Democrats plan to out-hawk the hawks and win the debate on their opponents' outrageous terms, we all lose. The last thing we can afford is a return to the saber-rattling of the George Bush-era. Obama's tenor shift on Iran was vital to establishing the pragmatic relations necessary to secure serious nuclear concessions--and prevent a war. We cannot afford to let this outrageous election season produce an unravelling of Obama's important recalibration on Iran. Otherwise, a Democratic President may not actively "tear the deal to shreds" but instead allow the deal to die a death of a thousand cuts.