The Grave Danger of Derailing the Iran Deal — An Interview with Chas Freeman

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Philip Weiss |

Chas, you said in an email that your concern about the congressional push against the Iran deal is broader than just Middle East issues.

I’m quite concerned about the impact the Iran deal and its possible aftermath could have on our domestic politics and our standing in the world.  I’m particularly worried that Congress may be devaluing the power of the executive to conduct foreign policy in future.

The 47 senators remind me of the 47 ronin.  (Look it up–  a famous episode in 18th century Japan when 47 leaderless samurai ran amok and ended up doing themselves in.)  Our 47 ronin wrote a letter to the Ayatollah saying basically: Pay no attention to our leader, he has no authority to act on behalf of the American people and anything he plans to do we plan to undo. Whatever else this letter was, it was stunningly irresponsible.

This was a new low for something that has always been a concern in the eyes of the world. The US separation of powers raises the question, when you deal with our president, are you dealing with someone who has the ability to close a deal? 

Has that ever been a real issue?

It certainly was in the case of the League of Nations.  The League of Nations was inspired by and shaped by Woodrow Wilson.  He made its creation a major aim of World War I.  And without commenting on the wisdom of it, it clearly exemplified American idealism and our belief in a rule-bound international order.

We persuaded reluctant allies to sign up for it.  It was our vision — not theirs — of what should come out of the huge war we had just fought together.  But the League of Nations was repudiated by the Republican Senate, led by Henry Cabot Lodge. That repudiation led to a withdrawal of the US from international affairs – the isolationism of the 1920s and ’30s, in which the richest country in the world conducted itself selfishly and without consideration of commitments to its allies in the war.

There are other examples in our history where we’ve done that sort of thing, but the relevance to the Iran deal is obvious.  We are at risk of a League of Nations moment.

Any Iran agreement will require action by the United Nations Security Council. If there’s a deal, the Security Council will have to act to remove the sanctions it imposed.  These are binding on everyone, including the Russians and the Chinese. There are also US sanctions, unilateral sanctions, many of them joined by our NATO allies. These sanctions are not binding on other countries, like Russia or China, or India.  

We have developed a habit of acting without regard to the Security Council – in the Iraq invasion, in the campaign in Bosnia, and in the detachment of Kosovo from Serbia, which the Russians lately cited as precedent for their Crimean activities.  Well, now Congress has raised the possibility that it will try to override the Security Council and part ways with our allies to prevent Iran from getting any sanctions relief at all, regardless what we may have agreed with Iran.

This could bring  down or at least gravely weaken the U.N. system, which is the post World War II order we have dominated. It would be a fundamental and perhaps fatal break between the U.S. and its principal allies in Europe. And it would degrade — it might mean the end of — American credibility in dealing with anybody in the Middle East and possibly elsewhere in the world.

Let’s say you go out with some friends and reach agreement with other people on how you should all settle a bitter quarrel.  And then you come home and your wife or husband says, you can’t do that, and blocks you from keeping your part of the bargain.  Well, nothing you say is going to be taken seriously by anyone after that. We all have only one reputation for seriousness of purpose to lose.  That’s what’s at stake here.  This has much wider implications than the particulars of the US versus Iran, or the US versus the Israel lobby, or the US versus the rightwing government in Israel.

People don’t seem to be thinking about the larger consequences of what’s at stake.  That’s because American don’t worry about our reputation, we think it’s inviolable and unassailable. In fact it’s pretty shitty just now.  Arguably, we have the world’s first genuinely autistic government:  we seem  uninterested in — perhaps  incapable of — seeing ourselves as others see us.

You think this is a recent trend?

It reflects our domestic dysfunction.

For example, in 2010 we agreed to fairly modest changes in the governance of the IMF and the World Bank, because their governance doesn’t reflect the current distribution of wealth and slights countries like China and India.  These organizations are central elements of the global order.  They overweight the US and Europe.  So we agreed to modest changes to plus up the role of newly prosperous places like China.  But Congress has been unable to do anything to implement this agreement.  It hasn’t really tried to do so.

Finally, a few months ago, China proposed a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to meet some of the investment needs that the existing institutions couldn’t.  We urged our allies and friends not to join the Chinese bank, but 57 countries, including our major NATO allies and Israel, went ahead and joined it anyway. We claimed the right to lead but we proved incapable of leading because of our domestic political divisions and dysfunction. And so we devalued our credibility.  Next time we take a stand, it’ll be even harder to persuade others to follow us.

Now we seem headed for an agreement that imposes constraints on Iran’s nuclear programs that go way beyond the NPT and the expectations of critics of the negotiations.  And we may be about to repudiate our own success, just as we repudiated the fruits of victory in World War I.

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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