I keep writing that the less President Obama and his top aides say about their deal to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, the better its chances of Congressional approval, and doggone it, they keep proving me right. In the latest instance, recent remarks by Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry about Congress’ decision and the fate of the U.S. dollar cast doubt on both their Iran policy as such, and about their claim to have any coherent foreign policy at all.
According to the president and his top diplomat, the dollar’s global position could be endangered if, after rejecting the agreement, American lawmakers try to force the rest of the world to abide by U.S. sanctions. They seem to be right in a key sense. As they have made abundantly clear, U.S. allies, rivals, and neutrals alike have viewed resuming business with Iran as a much higher priority than concluding a nuclear agreement without gaping loopholes. Both Messrs Obama and Kerry have both all but stated that ending multilateral curbs on trading with and investing in the energy-rich country always mattered most even to the West Europeans, and the Iran deal’s lenient sanctions-lifting conditions and verification weaknesses certainly bear them out. In fact, as I’ve written, the impossibility of mustering more international support for stronger terms – which is hardly Mr. Obama’s fault alone – is why I believe that this deeply flawed deal is better than none at all.
Not that U.S. leaders have been crystal clear on what kind of pressure would both (a) fail to move other major powers whose support would be crucial to damage Iran enough to achieve a stronger deal and (b) backfire disastrously. It’s even hard to figure out how they define “backfire disastrously.” For example, in an August 5 speech, the president said:
“If, as has…been suggested, we tried to maintain unilateral sanctions, beefen them up, we would be standing alone. We cannot dictate the foreign, economic and energy policies of every major power in the world.
“In order to even try to do that, we would have to sanction, for example, some of the world’s largest banks. We’d have to cut off countries like China from the American financial system. And since they happen to be major purchasers of or our debt, such actions could trigger severe disruptions in our own economy and, by the way, raise questions internationally about the dollar’s role as the world’s reserve currency.”
But in an interview yesterday, Kerry also suggested that simple Congressional rejection of the deal would be enough to threaten such U.S. interests: “[T]he notion that we can just sort of diss the deal, unilaterally walk away because Congress wants to, will have a profound negative impact on people’s sense of American leadership and reliability.”
More important, though, are the implications of either contention for America’s broader approach to the world, and to the issue of whether the nation’s current leaders are capable of achieving overseas goals crucial to the nation’s well-being. For both Mr. Obama and his Secretary of State are saying that the dollar-based economic clout that Congress would allegedly threaten by rejecting the Iran deal isn’t close to sufficient to ensure that the deal is genuinely satisfactory. They could be right. But if they are, then how important is this clout in the first place? And if this economic and financial power actually matters so little, does that leave America solely with the military option internationally when persuasion fails?
An obvious retort is that the power flowing from the dollar’s international role – and America’s economic strength more generally – doesn’t have to work every time in order to retain value. It’s also reasonable to argue that even if this kind of clout can’t deliver decisive results in a given situation, it can make important contributions. Then there’s the reality that power is often most effective when it’s use is only implicitly threatened.
Yet the importance attached by the administration to keeping Iran nuclear weapons-free, and the very limited potential of the Vienna agreement to ensure success (especially over any significant time period), undermines all those positions. Here’s the president himself describing the stakes in that August 5 speech:
“Among U.S. policymakers, there’s never been disagreement on the danger posed by an Iranian nuclear bomb. Democrats and Republicans alike have recognized that it would spark an arms race in the world’s most unstable region, and turn every crisis into a potential nuclear showdown. It would embolden terrorist groups, like Hezbollah, and pose an unacceptable risk to Israel, which Iranian leaders have repeatedly threatened to destroy. More broadly, it could unravel the global commitment to non-proliferation that the world has done so much to defend.”
And as Mr. Obama reminded his audience, he’s refused to rule out military options to prevent proliferation in Iran if other means fail.
All of which leaves us with two other possible explanations for the Obama analysis of economic power as well as for its potential to strengthen the Iran deal: Either his administration simply doesn’t want to use it, or it doesn’t know how. Like I said, the less we hear from the administration on this subject, the better the deal’s chances in Congress.